Splinterverse (2012)

SPLINTERVERSE
An OtherSpace Novel
Inspired by the text-based MUSH at jointhesaga.com

By
Wes Platt

PART I.
OBLIVION IN A BOTTLE

1 November 2654
Near the Tomin Nebula
Orion Arm, Milky Way Galaxy

Jude Piedmont’s waving hand did little to clear the acrid smoke wafting through the bridge of the Havelock as the freighter completed its transition across the rift from the Ancient Expanse to their home universe.

“We should be safe now,” burbled Ochochin Fichinru, the Castori pilot, as he confirmed their arrival to the familiar western spiral arm of the Milky Way, not far from the purple-blue sweep of dust known as the Tomin Nebula.

“Sure,” Captain Piedmont agreed with a sardonic snort. “Just as long as the Medlidikke don’t have a rift modu…” Three flashes of cerulean on the holographic sensor display and a sensor-triggered alarm klaxon followed on cue. Piedmont grumbled. “If we live through this, I’m revoking your talking privileges, Ocho. Nothing personal.”

While the squat, gray-furred pilot boosted the Morin Industries sublight engines toward red-line and angled the Havelock toward the relative safety of the nebula, Piedmont kept a sharp eye on the trio of persistent Expanse ships – hijacked warships that once belonged to the warrior caste of the Hekayti, now in the clutches of ruthless military rejects and bloodthirsty criminals.

It seemed like they were putting a decent gap between the lithe Havelock and the lumbering pursuers. They remained beyond the reach of the Medlidikke weapons.

“Three minutes and FTL’s recharged,” the pilot announced. “Nebula penetration in thirty seconds.”

Piedmont allowed himself the barest hint of a smile. “Let’s send them back with their horns in their hands.”

That’s when a loud SPANG! echoed through the corridor linking the bridge to the aft engineering compartment, just before the normally comforting thrum of the engines spluttered to heart-chilling silence.

“Permission to revoke *your* talking privileges, Captain?” Ocho asked as Havelock drifted on inertia. The pursuing vessels closed the gap. “Nebula penetration in nineteen seconds. But they’ll have weapons lock in ten.”

They wouldn’t need their ship weapons now, with Havelock crippled. Not yet. Not until after they boarded and took the cargo that Piedmont had just spent the last three months hunting down across an alien universe.

“Surrender or perish,” came a growling command across the general hailing frequency.

Neither option really appealed, so Piedmont decided to try Secret Alternative C: “Look, I told you, we’re not carrying anything you want. But if you back off and leave us be, I’ll track down some top-notch hoof polish for you.”

The Medlidikke ships maintained their intercept trajectories. “We will inspect your vessel and confirm. If you are telling the truth, you and your crew will be granted a quick death.”

“Oh, that’s the sweetest thing anyone’s said to me all day,” Piedmont replied, cutting the transmission. He stood upright in front of his command chair and then walked back toward the smoky open hatchway, intent on punching and kicking something until the engines whirred back to life. As he walked, Jude pulled the Van Den Tweel 660 pulse pistol from his hip holster and checked the charge: Half-full. Good enough for a limited firefight, but doomed in a protracted siege. Luckily, the Medlidikke could only dock one ship at a time, assuming they wanted to maintain Havelock‘s hull integrity long enough to snare the cargo. Big assumption, he thought. Piedmont called back to the pilot, “Charge check, Ocho!”

Aboard the lead Medlidikke marauder, the Skytaker, Vard Bokren waited impatiently for the rewards of this pursuit.

They had tracked the Orion Arm ship’s movements through the Ancient Expanse soon after Piedmont first landed on Comorro Station and started asking around about the Splinter: a shard of rock imbued with the powerful psionic energies of the original Kamir tribe, carved eons ago from the jagged cliffs of Liwail Mountain. A ghost story, ages old, but with a kernel of truth that allowed it to remain tantalizing as a possibility.

The Hekayti pirate had heard the story since he was a child, from konterbeid busybodies who served little other purpose than gathering tidbits of information and spewing them out any chance they could in an effort to sound intelligent. Back then, he never would’ve imagined himself as a brigand among the stars, let alone becoming a ghost story in his own right. Bokren had been a proud warrior serving in the Ledelkrig caste, a son of privilege. But privilege proved too costly and when your own father tries to have you killed, the life of a feared phantom doesn’t seem so bad.

He never expected the human to find much more than a shiny rock foisted on him by a wily Lotorian junk merchant. Piedmont’s luck and resourcefulness surprised Bokren. He didn’t like surprises.

“Pulling alongside the Havelock,” the navigator announced.

Piedmont frowned in frustration as he found himself wading about heel deep through scattered piles of crumpled silver foil wrappers on the deck of the engineering chamber.

“I thought I told you to clean this up two days ago,” the captain said in the direction of the lower half of the scaled Zangali whose head, torso, and arms seemed to have vanished into the service manifold of the engine service bay.

“Busy,” hissed Garunth Salaban. “Fused circuit.”

Piedmont stopped a few feet from the Havelock‘s engineer and crossed his arms, nudging the toe of his boot against the wrapper that displayed a bright red and blue FIZZYCAKES logo. “This shit’s toxic, you know.”

“Bugging me doesn’t fix this faster,” the Zangali snarled, still working inside the cavity and doing his best to ignore the boss.

“Yeah, well, in a few seconds, it won’t really matter,” Piedmont replied. “They’re boarding any moment now.” He gave an unseen nod toward the loose carpet of food wrappers covering the deckplates. “Seriously, man, I think we’re talking about a mental health issue.”

PING. PING. PING. PING. PING.

Five new sensor contacts materialized, dropping to sublight from OtherSpace, approaching from the direction of Tomin Kora.

Ochochin Fichinru had confirmed that the pulse pistol tucked into the back of his trousers, the plasma rifle fused under the console with gummy pink tangler goop, and the flechette dispenser in his wrist bracelet all were fully loaded. So, if the horned Hekayti pirates started a ruckus on the Havelock, at least one heavily-armed and incredibly peeved Castori would be ready and waiting.

But he quickly realized that the sudden appearance of these new ships might deprive him of a chance to go out in a legendary blaze of death, destruction, and stupefying chaos. Rapid sensor sweeps confirmed that the Odarite and Demarian vessels, obtained second-hand at wholesale by representatives of Lord Fagin the Pirate King, came from the Elite Guard.

Ochochin spent about a second on a disappointed sigh, then keyed the intercom and announced: “Salvation on sensors.”

Ellory Abernathy, majordomo and right hand to Lord Fagin, stood on the bridge of the Elite Guard flagship Galore.

On the outside, in many respects, Galore looked like the high-class Sleekstar galaxy starliner that it once was before the vessel was pressed into defensive service for the Pirate King. Notably, the metallic bulbs of lifepod blisters that dotted the middle hull had been replaced by plasma turrets, which now locked on the Skytaker.

It had been a long day in the midst of a long week. Abernathy wanted nothing more than to relax in his penthouse apartment, catch up on the latest rockhopper races on the vid, and maybe resume that long-distance correspondence relationship with the woman on Quaquan who called herself Eshesh, but might just as easily have been a demonbot or a Stelpol operative. But circumstances, as they so often did, dictated that Abernathy instead follow a less personally gratifying course of action.

So, he had rallied a small fleet together to intervene on behalf of Jude Piedmont, who was a solid and upstanding associate of the Smugglers Guild. Sometimes. But it was about more than just the fact that Piedmont paid his membership dues on a regular basis, because, well, he often lapsed. But if the smuggler had chanced upon something valuable enough to bring rampaging Medlidikke chasing after him from beyond the rift, then it must surely be something valuable enough to recover on behalf of Lord Fagin.

It seemed astonishing that Piedmont might have accomplished such a feat. Abernathy had always regarded the captain as a man of limited competence coupled with erratic ambition. But here he was, prized quarry stuck between intruders from the Ancient Expanse and his benefactors in Fagin’s Riches of the Orion Arm.

On the open frequency, Abernathy announced to the Medlidikke: “You are conducting hostile operations in space controlled by Lord Fagin. Poor form. In all matters related to salvage and recovery in this sector, the Elite Guard has right of first refusal. So, back off. Only warning.”

“They’re not boarding?” Piedmont asked as he stepped back onto the bridge of the Havelock.

Ochochin shook his snout back and forth. On the sensor display, Skytaker and its two companion vessels dropped back a comfortable distance, but did not yet depart through the rift. Instead, they put themselves on the opposite side of the Havelockfrom the Galore, putting the contested freighter in the crossfire.

“The Medlidikke are complying with Majordomo Abernathy’s demand,” the Castori said. “And now the Galore wants us to land in the docking bay.”

Piedmont frowned. “That’s not good.” The captain knew better than to expect that Abernathy just wanted to provide safe harbor from the alien pirates. The majordomo wasn’t that protective. Under normal circumstances, he might at least give the pursuers an opportunity to bid higher for Abernathy to look the other way. Obviously, he wanted to get at least a look at whatever cargo aboard the Havelock had proven so irresistible to Vard Bokren. If Abernathy so much as glimpsed the Splinter, he would confiscate it immediately for the Pirate King. That wouldn’t make Piedmont’s client too happy. He settled back into the command chair, then activated his closed frequency to the Galore: “Majordomo Abernathy, thank you for the assistance. We appreciate your concern, but with just a few small repairs, the Havelock will be good as new.”

The majordomo replied: “Humor me, Captain Piedmont.” The icy tone didn’t offer much hope of negotiation. Nor did Ochochin’s quiet nod toward the holovid image of the Galore‘s starboard plasma turrets rotating to aim at the Havelock.

PING. PING. PING. Three more ships dropped to sublight in flashes of cerulean and drifted into a position that placed them between Havelock and Galore. Two Vanguard military escort ships flanked the shark-like black Engel-class scout with blue and green markings of the Consortium Intelligence Service.

“Sorry I’m late,” Senior Agent Grim said over the open channel from aboard the CIS scout, the Tendril. “Unavoidable delay. Captain Piedmont, I am ready to take delivery of that cargo.”

I’m not an expert, Piedmont thought, but this doesn’t seem like the most covert of covert operations in the long and storied history of covert operations.

“We’ll talk about this after Lord Fagin’s technicians have combed over the Havelock to make sure the ship is structurally sound,” Abernathy countered to the Consortium agent.

“The captain and I struck a bargain,” Grim replied. “If he wants to share a cut of his profits with you, that’s between the two of you. The cargo belongs to me.”

PING. PING. PING. PING. Four more ships flashed into view: Nall warships of the Parallax, taking up positions oppositeHavelock from the Medlidikke.

Over the general hailing frequency, the Nall fleet commander announced: “This is Antaz of Hatch Vril. On behalf of the benevolent and glorious Vox who shines upon all who bow to her dominance, I claim the revered Splinter carried aboard the softskin shipHavelock.”

Piedmont palmed his forehead and slumped forward in his chair. “Of course I couldn’t be this popular when I was a kid, right?”

The Havelock drifted slowly near the rift, a tear in space-time that linked Piedmont’s home universe to the alien realm known as the Ancient Expanse, now surrounded by nineteen vessels carrying people who all wanted to take the precious cargo from his hold.

It might end in a shooting war, now that the Stellar Consortium and Parallax found themselves in competition for the Splinter. It had been about a decade since the last major battle between the Sorties and the scalebacks, which had been fought to a draw along the Line of Pain. Majordomo Abernathy might not mind another conflict between those territories, but Piedmont didn’t want to die to give Lord Fagin a revenue boost.

What to do?

He could make a run for the Galore’s docking bay, but he was fairly sure that the Nall and Medlidikke would open fire. Together, their forces probably could tear Havelock and Galore apart.

He could eject the Splinter, bolt toward the nebula, and leave the sharks to their frenzy. Cut his losses. Maybe live to work another day. Piedmont didn’t want to lose the money Grim had promised, but a financial setback seemed preferable to inhaling vacuum. Plus, it would be an amazing sight, all those ships pounding away at each other with cannons and pulse beams.

“The OtherSpace Drive is at full charge again,” Ochochin said, glancing over his shoulder at the captain.

Or…. Piedmont grinned, which prompted the Castori to frown. “Ocho, how fast can you get us up to drive velocity?”

“Eight or nine seconds, if I overpower the thrusters,” the pilot answered. “Of course, it’s all academic until Garunth gets the engines back online.”

Fair point, the captain realized. Lack of propulsion meant he was effectively limited to hurling the cargo in the vain hope that he might not die in the ensuing crossfire or blowing up his ship in some pointless gesture of desperation. Piedmont didn’t have enough faith in the powers of the universe that he would be spared destruction and he simply wasn’t the suicidal sort. Even during his worst days, he wanted to live. Granted, he hadn’t chosen a particularly safe and comfortable line of work that would tend to improve one’s prospects for seeing old age. But will to live didn’t mean surrender to boredom, either. He would die one day, no cure for that, but it wouldn’t be here and it wouldn’t be now if he could help it.

Piedmont thumbed the intercom link to engineering and asked, “Any chance we’re going to have engines online in the next minute or so?”

The engineer’s answer, interspersed with the sound of crinkling foil, came from a chewing snout: “Urmeebee. Curpleshaks.”

Soth Antazvril, commander of the warship Nalia’s Claw, hung in a harness suspended from the ceiling of the command chamber by two heavy-linked chains. Around her, holographic images showed the relative positions of the other ships, with the Havelock glowing bright purple.

Her scaly tail, unblunted by chops of discipline during her decades of service to the Clawed Fist Fleet, lashed back and forth as the Mekke weapons engineer stepped into the misty dome. She swiveled her snout to peer down at the insectoid through beady black eyes. “Is it ready?” she asked.

The Mekke, known as Ercrax, clacked his mandibles and flexed his antennae before replying, “The device is powered and operational.”

It sounded suspiciously like a hedge to Antaz of Hatch Vril. So she asked once more, with appropriate emphasis: “Is it *ready*?” If the Mekke proved reticent and duplicitous, she would take his head. Swift punishment always served as a good example to subordinates in the Nall fleet.

“I would prefer more time for adequate testing,” Ercrax conceded, compound eyes lowered in deference to the Soth. “This seems a precipitous location for it, especially given our proximity to that rift. Results could be unpredictable.”

The Nall gnashed her fangs together and hissed at the Mekke. “You are absolved of any responsibility for the consequences of this action, Ercrax,” she said. Not that her absolution would give him any consolation in the event that the Claw was destroyed with all aboard as a result. “Proceed.”

In truth, Garunth Salaban had replaced the fused circuit before the captain’s call from the bridge. The repair had taken about fifteen seconds. He had waited until Piedmont left to plug the new circuit into the socket.

Now he sat cross-legged on the floor, munching a Fizzycake. After he savored the sweet flavor of the brown frosted cake and that sizzling sensation on his bumpy tongue, the engineer decided that he had made Captain Piedmont wait long enough.

The Zangali had signed on with the Havelock two years ago. Garunth had been working as a technician in the Bradbury Colony spaceport on Mars when Piedmont first met him. All his life, Garunth had never known much about the universe first-hand. He had been a denizen of the Zangali cavern cities beneath the surface of Mars. What he learned about the galaxy had come from holovids, books, and the astounding stories shared by starfaring captains and crews in the spaceport.

Since joining the crew, Garunth had been to dozens of worlds across two universes, but mostly he saw them through the porthole of the engineering chamber when he wasn’t jamming his head into a manifold or crawlspace to fix the ship. Glimpses of adventure, one glassy plate at a time.

So, he got his excitement where he could. Right now, that amounted to testing the captain’s patience just a little while longer. He rested a claw-tipped finger on the engine restart pad, just lightly enough to feel the plastic but not yet hard enough to activate the circuit.

With his free hand, Garunth reached into his jumpsuit pocket and plucked another snack in a shiny wrapper. He tore it open with his fangs, popped the cake into his mouth, and let the wrapper flutter slowly to the deck to join its many companions.

And then he waited.

Clearly, the Nall would prove the greatest threat. Beyond strength of arms and a fierce potential for unyielding bloodlust, Senior Agent Grim understood that the Parallax maintained an arsenal of deadly weapons of mass destruction. The shattered planet Ungstir remained as a permanent reminder of what a Nall Coreseeker missile could do to those who defied the Parallax.

If Grim’s people could neutralize the Nall, it should be able to serve the dual purpose of eliminating the biggest obstacle and sending a message to both Abernathy and this Hekayti pirate, Bokren, that they would be wiser not to trifle with the Consortium Intelligence Service.

But the Tendril and its Vanguard escorts wouldn’t accomplish that task through the barrels of their pulse cannons. Honestly, the last thing Grim wanted was a hot war with their old enemy. He thought he could accomplish his goal without sacrificing lives on either side.

So instead, Grim lurked behind the one-legged hacker in the hoverchair in the Tendril’s conference room as he tapped holographic pads in a white-blue haze above the table and brought up an image of the Nalia’s Claw, depicting multiple layers of deck schematics and data network nodes.

“Can you break into their system?” Grim asked, clasping his hands behind his back.

The gaunt-faced, straw-haired man in the hoverchair gave a quick cackle and said, “Never tried before. Won’t be easy. Oh, but it will be fun to try.” Ferdinand Glengarry Magellan Cottonswill, known to friends and enemies alike by his hacker community handle “Vampire,” shot a blissful grin at the silver-haired spy boss. “Even more fun if you fix me a drink first. Vodka gimlet?”

Grim frowned. “Get tanked on your own time,” he said. “Hijack their systems. Amp the chillers. Nall can’t stand the cold. It makes them lethargic.”

Vampire pouted and complained, “You’re spoiling a perfectly exciting adventure for me. I work better with a good buzz.” However, he followed Grim’s directive and started drilling through the digital protection protocols that safeguarded the delicate systems aboard the Nall warship.

Moments later, he was rewarded with a color shift in the digital protocol map, from white to green. He sifted through system control nodes until he found the one that would prove most useful to accomplish Grim’s goal: Atmospherics. Vampire smirked, then dragged the temperature control vertical bar, currently tall and orange, down until it was squat and blue.

The engines aboard the Havelock thrummed back to life. Piedmont didn’t wait for Garunth to signal the bridge. He told Ochochin: “Angle toward the Galore and punch it.”

Brow knitting, the Castori swiveled in his chair to peer suspiciously at Piedmont. “If we’re even a second off the estimate, we’ll collide before we can jump. And, you know, even if our estimates are correct, I’m not sure what will happen if we make a jump that close to them. Do you want to be responsible for blowing up Lord Fagin’s ship?”

The captain crossed his arms. “Ocho, if we run toward any of the other ships, Galore will open fire on us to prevent our cargo from falling into the wrong hands. Our best hope is to play chicken.”

The pilot’s rounded ears twitched as he scratched the side of his snout. “That’s not much of a hope,” Ochochin replied.

“No,” Piedmont agreed. “It’s not. But it’s what we have. Do it.”

The purple blob that represented the Havelock lurched toward the Galore, but Antazvril had trouble focusing. She raised a three-fingered hand, but it looked as fuzzy as everything else around her in the command center.

She shivered against the cold. Something gone wrong in atmospherics? Malfunction, she mused. She swung her snout, left and right. Her tail drooped.

Antazvril wanted to open a channel to Ercrax. Her snout parted so that she could voice the command, but she only managed a misty hiss before sagging limply in her command harness.

In the engineering compartment aboard the Nalia’s Claw, the Mekke weapons designer placed the green and silver canister, about a foot tall, in the containment bubble of the teleportation module.

Raised in the perpetually chilly caverns of Ist’thol’mek, Ercrax hardly noticed the change in temperature save for the sense that it seemed more comfortable than usual. He didn’t realize anything wrong until he looked around the room and saw half a dozen Nall warriors in lacquered black armor slumped and slumbering against the bulkheads.

He faced a critical choice, governed primarily by whether he thought this temperature drop might be more than a brief glitch. If atmospherics returned to normal almost immediately, the Nall could awaken in just a few minutes. But if systems had gone offline due to mechanical failure, they might remain in hibernation for hours, maybe even days.

Ercrax had spent more than twenty years in servitude to the Nall. Now, fate had rendered his captors unconscious and placed him on the verge of an alien universe, surrounded by ships commanded by people who would do almost anything to get hold of the latest Nall weapon technology.

If he could get to the pod before Soth Antazvril and her warriors awakened again, Ercrax would finally know freedom and perhaps even wealth beyond his most optimistic imaginings.

He reached a claw back into the containment bubble and grasped the canister, ready to pull it free and return it to the foam-padded box on the nearby table.

That’s when the pale humanoid finger reached over his chitinous shoulder to touch the activator button for the teleporter. The canister, along with Ercrax’s left claw and forearm, vanished in a burst of blue light.

The amputation didn’t exactly hurt, mostly it seemed to tingle mercilessly, but the wound wasn’t cauterized. Dark blue-black ichor spurted from the stump as the Mekke turned to gaze up into the pasty white face of the silver-haired Vollistan Light Singer interrogator with the lavender eyes. “Voluanfel,” Ercrax chittered, dropping to his knee joints on the deck and bracing himself with his three undamaged arms.

“Just making sure Nalia’s will is done,” the looming Light Singer said in a voice just above a whisper.

Oblivion in a bottle.

That’s how the Mekke scientist, Ercrax, had first described the Singularity Mine in the planning documents presented to the Clawed Fist Fleet.

It had undergone development for the better part of a decade in the Nall-monitored lab on Ist’thol’mek, as Ercrax and his laboratory specialists theorized and then applied that theory to the creation of the cylinder, the null-space containment bubble, the matter and antimatter pellets, the control computer and its programming, and the special microinjector with dual nozzles to secure against premature activation.

The device served a simple but elegant purpose: Unfeeling, merciless destruction on a terrifying scale. If used properly, perhaps deployed in the core of a heavily populated Stellar Consortium planet, it would dwarf the horrifying effects of the more traditional Coreseeker missile.

Its control computer functioned under the programmed authority of an artificial intelligence known as Connector. During the last three years, it had been Connector who had communicated on a regular basis with Ercrax, presenting results of internal diagnostics and simulated release outcomes.

“Will you deploy us today?” Connector would ask. The AI had asked this question exactly 493 times before this day. Each time, Ercrax had answered: “No.”

Today, though, it had been different.

As the scientist drew the silver and green cylinder from its locked box, Ercrax slid his claw along the power pad. The soft pad glowed blue. Connector spoke: “Singularity Mine primed for use. Internal stability confirmed. Will you deploy us today?”

“You have waited patiently for many months,” Ercrax said. “Yes, Connector. Today. Deployment. You are ready?”

Of course, Connector was ready. This was the function for which it had been created. Systems operated nominally. It could detect no mechanical issues that would require aborted deployment. However, it had developed a substantial knowledgebase about sentient communication during its discussions with Ercrax and had eventually come to understand, if not appreciate, some of the more esoteric stylings of speech. “Optimal conditions,” the AI responded. “Deployment recommended.”

As deployment neared, Connector experienced something akin to confusion – shifting data points, non-correlatable processes – when the scientist’s claw clutched it around the midsection and started to pull it from the teleporter aboard the Nalia’s Claw. None of the simulations had proposed manual interface during transit. The AI could not be certain how the additional mass and weight might affect targeting.

Connector continued to analyze the altered paradigm while simultaneously tracking its location coordinates, which changed instantly from the engineering bay of the Clawed Fist Fleet warship to what should have been the heart of the OtherSpace Drive aboard the Havelock as that ship sped toward the Galore.

Instead, the Singularity Mine materialized inside a tall crate in the Havelock‘s cargo hold, next to a shard of rock that glowed blue like the telltale strip on the side of Connector’s cylinder. The severed chitinous black claw and forearm clanked against the floor as it fell away. The AI filtered through condition protocols, which directed it to ignore the minimal shortfall of distance to the target. It would have preferred a more on-point arrival, but the protocols for deployment allowed for this much margin of error. Had the goal been more of a surgical strike, Ercrax had once explained, they wouldn’t be building a weapon with destructive power of this magnitude. A few meters here or there would be relatively academic after deployment.

Connector triggered the dual injectors to unleash the pellets into the null-space field.

Oblivion left the bottle.

PART II.
SPLINTERED

PIEDMONT

“I didn’t know you spoke Spanish.”

Jude Piedmont opened his eyes and found himself staring into a strange but beautiful woman’s face. A Qua, descended from native American spacefarers, with brown eyes, long black hair and tan skin. She sprawled beside him on the bed of an adobe-walled domicile.

It took him about three seconds to realize he was naked. They both were. For the briefest moment after that, he felt incredibly self-conscious and baffled. He wasn’t supposed to be here. He saw flashes in his mind: A furred paw on a control console. Some kind of silver foil wrapper floating slowly toward the floor. A scaled arm. Smelled the acrid scent of scorched wiring. Heard a distant PING. Ping. ping.

The moment passed.

He chuckled and said, “I don’t. What makes you think I do?”

Leandra Hightree once traced her lineage all the way back to the Colorado Pueblos in the 19th Century. At 26, she was the oldest of five sisters and two brothers. Her father, John Hightree, managed the starport in Four Corners, capital of Quaquan. She worked security aboard a freighter called the Saginaw. They’d been dating for about eight months. It hadn’t gotten old for Jude. Not yet, at least. She ran the tip of her index finger along the bare skin of his shoulder and down his left arm, a mischievous smile on her face. “You were talking in your sleep.”

He froze, wondering what he might have said. Piedmont ran through a quick mental inventory. Which of his old girlfriends had Spanish-sounding names. Petra? Flora? Lenora? Barbara? “I was?” he hedged.

“Yeah,” Leandra said. “I think you were counting or something. You said ‘Ocho.’ That’s ‘eight’ in Spanish.”

He rolled onto his back, sighing at least partially in relief as he gazed up at the plaster ceiling. “Maybe I heard that somewhere before. I know Terran Standard and enough Zangali to get into a bar fight in Bradbury. The old languages, though? Never bothered.”

“Kind of amazing what the brain stashes away,” she said.

“Yeah,” Jude agreed. A wrist chrono on the bedside table went ping-Ping-PING. His side. He reached for the chrono and plucked it off the wooden surface. Local time 07:45 a.m. “Time to go to work,” he said. Rolled toward Leandra, kissing her.

As she pulled back, she said, “Saginaw‘s leaving for a run today. I don’t expect to be home for at least a week. Schrader’s got a bug up about making green this quarter.”

“Green’s good,” he replied. “Beats red, right?”

“I guess,” Leandra said. “Don’t let Dad work you too hard.”

John Hightree frowned as he watched Jude Piedmont stride through the main doors of the Ashkii Dighin Interstellar Spaceport. Like always. Jude knew he was right on time, early in fact, and his dark orange corporation jumpsuit was tucked perfectly into his polished leather boots, but that never mattered. Hightree always did this. He seemed to live for the opportunity to offer critiques on a daily basis.

“You did not shave,” Leandra’s father said, noting the dark stubble peppering Jude’s cheeks. John Hightree stood a little over six feet, easily three inches taller than Jude, with gray-streaked black hair bound in a ponytail with an ornate red and gold cloth. He wore a dark blue suit, black leather shoes, and a pale lavender shirt with a turquoise bolo tie.

Truth be told, Jude didn’t shave because he didn’t think it mattered. He didn’t work around the public much at all. When he did, he usually wore a face mask to protect against toxic inhalants around the refueling systems. Piedmont tried to stare angrily at Hightree, but he couldn’t hold the gaze. He wanted the man’s approval. Needed it, if he wanted to keep this job and keep his girl. So he looked at his watch and said, “Wow, yeah, forgot. Sorry.”

“You may take a razor from the spaceport commissary,” Hightree said, pointing toward the shop to the left of a row of passenger check-in kiosks. “It will be deducted from your payburst.”

Again, Jude felt compelled to react harshly to the older man’s demands. He shouldn’t have to pay for a razor! He shouldn’t have to shave! His job required him to maintain fuel hoses, hook those hoses to arriving starships, detach those hoses from departing starships, and inspect fuel tanks to ensure that the spaceport remained adequately supplied. He didn’t have to stand behind a counter and put a happy face on for the passengers. But, again, he failed to successfully confront the blatant bullying. Instead, he looked at his shoes. “Yes, sir,” he said, shoulders slumping as he made his way to the commissary.

A few minutes later, Piedmont faced a mirror in the restroom and dry-shaved his cheeks and chin. The dark circles under his green eyes, the gray mixed with the brown hair at his temples, and those frown lines from his nose past his mouth made him look older than his thirty two years.

When he finally reached the spaceport fuel depot to clock in, he found John Hightree waiting. “You are five minutes late,” he observed with rumbling disdain. “That will be deducted from your payburst.”

Jude clenched his jaw and his face reddened. He managed to glare briefly at Hightree, but then turned his attention toward the display monitoring Tank 18.

“Do you have something to say, Piedmont?” the Qua asked.

Yes. He had a lot to say! Hightree never had liked him, had only given him the job because Leandra pressed for it, and the old man would do whatever he must to drive Jude away. He wouldn’t have been late if Hightree hadn’t nagged him about shaving. It was a setup! He wanted to punch John Hightree in the jaw. But, in the end, all Jude could manage was: “Won’t happen again.”

“We’ll see,” Hightree mused, sounding dubious.

Jude fumed as he conducted the morning diagnostics. The routine was good, he thought. Repetition dulled the rage. He let his anger float off to another pocket of his mind while he busied himself with tank capacity versus tank contents. He donned the bright orange gloves and gas mask, then roamed from pump to pump in each berthing quad of the spaceport, scanning for leakages with his own eyes and with the PDA sensor module.

He checked the fuel status of starships berthed and ready for departure to make sure their systems were secure, full, and fully paid.

About thirty minutes into his shift, a new arrival fired its retrojets and landed in Berth 12. He recognized the stocky outline of the Reveler-class freighter. It was the sort of utilitarian vessel he had once dreamed of owning himself. Unfortunately, the Clara Nellincident followed him around on his permanent record. The loss of a ship with nearly total loss of life due to a navigation error meant he couldn’t secure a piloting license on any Consortium world. He had thought about taking his chances with the smugglers and pirates on Tomin Kora, but even they had certain standards, it turned out.

The docking ramp slid down from the Havelock as Piedmont walked toward the refueling hose hook on the spaceport dispenser system. Heavy feet thumped down the metal plates of the ramp. He turned to get a look at the Zangali, who was followed from the ship by a squat Castori.

“I shaved at least sixteen minutes off our time with that maneuver, Captain Salaban,” insisted the Castori pilot as they stepped onto the docking bay’s steel-reinforced concrete floor.

The Zangali, Salaban, bobbed his snout in agreement as he looked down at the pilot. “You also blew out the radial coupler in the port thruster nozzle. That’s going to cost at least four hundred credits to fix.”

“Two hundred. Three, at worst,” the pilot said. He took a PDA from a holster clipped to his trousers. “I know someone on Castor who can set us up with cheap parts.”

Salaban clacked his fangs together and huffed in bemusement. “That’s just stupid. I hate to be insulting, Ochochin, but there’s nothing smart about it and I would prefer not to offend with lies.”

“It’s not stupid! It saves at least one hundred credits,” Ochochin responded.

“No, it is definitely stupid,” Salaban said. “I’ll prove it. I’ll show you that this idea is so dumb, even the fuel monkey over there can tell me why.” He jerked a clawed thumb in Jude’s direction, then looked toward the human in the orange jumpsuit and awaited an answer.

“Uh,” Jude uttered. He didn’t like someone calling him a monkey. He wanted to tell the Zangali to hump a flagpole. But he didn’t need this captain complaining to Hightree, did he? So he let the comment slide and opted to just give a straightforward answer. “Well. Simple math, really. Fuel between here and Castor will cost at least three hundred credits. Plus, there’s the potential for further mechanical problems when you’re traveling long distances with a busted thruster nozzle. So, in the hopes of saving those hundred credits, you could lose maybe three, four times more.” He shrugged. “Cheaper to spend the money here in the long run.”

“See?” Salaban asked, turning his attention back to the Castori. “He pumps fuel for a living and still has better business sense than you.” The bear-like pilot bared his fangs in anger, but the Zangali dismissed the look and asked Jude, “Who can we see in-port about the repair?”

Piedmont didn’t have to think long about it. “Aberdeen Pell. She’ll deal square. If you go with Fincher, he’ll keep you planetside a few extra days and milk you.”

“Thank you,” the captain said. “Top off the Havelock. She needs the mid-grade thruster fuel, but I want pure-strained polydenum for the OtherSpace Drive. Understood?”

“Understood,” Jude echoed. He watched the Zangali and the Castori – “I didn’t know you spoke Spanish” – walk toward the archway leading into the spaceport. He took the fueling hose off its hook. Felt dizzy. Saw a flash of silver foil floating. He dropped the hose nozzle on the concrete, where it made a THUNG noise.

Salaban stopped in the archway to look back at Jude and asked, “Are you all right?”

Piedmont frowned within the mask, sweat beading on his forehead as he leaned to recover the fallen nozzle. “Yeah,” he answered. “I’m fine. Just a little clumsy.”

“Be careful,” the Zangali said, and then disappeared into the port with Ochochin to find Aberdeen Pell.

After he finished refueling the Havelock, Jude made his way through the shadowy service tunnels until he reached Berth 25, where the McCall-class freighter with the shark fins – the Saginaw – went through final inspection before launch. He hoped he wasn’t too late to watch Leandra leave. He peered from behind three tall stacked crates, preferring to remain unobserved.

He saw the captain, Derek Schraeder, pacing under the lower hull and occasionally pointing something out to the port technician – a slender silver-haired Timonae that Jude recognized as Fexx Joris. Joris tapped notes onto a PDA keypad as he listened to the captain’s instructions. Schrader was at least ten years older than Jude. Sandy hair, crew cut, gray eyes. He had run the Saginaw for about five years, Leandra had told him.

An ex-Vanguard pilot, Schraeder had fought in the Neptune Defense, the decisive battle in the Consortium-Parallax war in 2643 that swayed the conflict in favor of Earth and resulted in negotiated peace with Nalhom. The burn scars on the left side of Schraeder’s neck came from the molten metal and plastic erupting from the navigation console of his Stinger fighter. He had narrowly escaped. They awarded him the Consortium Silver Sword.

Once Joris finished taking notes, the tech shook Schraeder’s hand and then waved farewell before leaving the bay. Leandra passed the Timonae as he departed and favored him with a smile and a friendly greeting. Then she gave a nod to Schraeder on approach to the ramp leading up into the ship. The captain intercepted, a wicked grin on his face, placing a hand on her hip, and leaned in to kiss her. She drew back, looking around angrily. Slap him, Piedmont thought. Punch him, then walk away. But when she didn’t see anybody around, Leandra relented with a small kiss, a scowl, and a wagging finger. She wasn’t angry at all. Just discreet.

Jude wanted to storm out from behind those boxes and call them out for their deceit and treachery. Her betrayal. How could she do this to him? Why? He gave her everything he could. Why would she turn to Schraeder for affection? But just as he couldn’t stand up for himself with her father or the condescending Zangali, Jude Piedmont seemed powerless to do anything but watch as the slipped aboard the Saginaw for their weeklong getaway.

Besides, he rationalized, who was he compared to Schrader? Her captain was a war hero, while Jude couldn’t get Ochochin’s job – “I didn’t know you spoke Spanish” – because he once miscalculated a course in the Luna orbital traffic pattern and rammed into a ship carrying kids from New York on a field trip to Lunar City. You’re lucky to have a roof over your head, he thought. Don’t screw with this if you know what’s good for you.

He felt dizzy again, saw a flash of glowing blue interwoven with black stone, and then shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. It wasn’t too late. He could make a run for that ramp, slip aboard, and put an end to the uncertainty. He could stand his ground, show some pride, and make Leandra answer for what she had done to him.

If he confronted her, he expected it would only result in the end of their relationship. She would throw a list of shortcomings in his face and kick him out of the apartment. But if he didn’t deal with it now, what was going to happen in a week when she got back? How could he face her? How could he so much as smile at her again without addressing what he had just seen? He must deal with it, he knew, but if he lost her, he lost this job. He couldn’t afford unemployment with his debt problems.

As if on cue, while the Saginaw‘s ramp rose and the airlock sealed, Piedmont’s PDA chimed. He reached to unclip it from his belt and looked at the display: “Meet tonight. Yellow Adobe. Z.”

He felt impotent and angry as he watched the freighter lift off from the bay. He felt trapped. Alone. He slumped into the shadows of the service corridor, buried his masked face in his hands, and wept.

Then a hand touched his shoulder and he heard a man’s voice: “It’s not as bad as all that, is it? We won.”

Piedmont lifted his unmasked face from his hands. He wasn’t in the service corridor of the Quaquan spaceport. Instead, he appeared to be sitting at one of the counsel tables in a courtroom. He wore a formal suit with a white shirt and blue tie. The man speaking to him, also wearing a suit, had curly black hair and pudgy cheeks. He didn’t look anything like – Schraeder – “fuel monkey” – “I didn’t know you spoke Spanish” – twirling crumpled squares of silver foil – “You did not shave” …

…and yet his face felt clean shaven, didn’t it?

Jacob Gettleman smiled broadly and said, “Buck up, Jude. Jury found in your favor. And why wouldn’t they? You saved lives that day. Bloody travesty, suing you for averting such a disaster.” He tucked his PDA into an open briefcase with several flimsy file sheets and said, “Ending the temporary suspension of your pilot’s license should be a formality. I should have you reinstated by the end of the week. So, take a vacation and enjoy yourself.”

Piedmont knew he could certainly use some rest and relaxation. He couldn’t go offworld with the crew of the Clara Nell until the license reinstatement. Well, he could. Baker might even look the other way, if Jude asked nicely. Still, the old guy liked to stay above board and never wanted to run into any problems with inspection authorities. The random checks happened maybe once every twenty five runs, but sure as you should never lick a Centauran, the time the Vanguard chose to board would be the one time Piedmont didn’t have his card.

So, with this sudden spare time, he might go to…Canada? China? Or…Spain. He could also leave the planet if he let someone else do the piloting. Piedmont preferred to control his own destiny, but every once in a while, he relented. Much to think about. He laced his fingers together and leaned back in the wooden-backed chair of the New York City courtroom. “Good advice,” he said.

It had been a near thing. A glitch in the Clara Nell‘s programming had resulted in a malfunction that had placed the freighter on a collision course with a school transport – the Pensacola – taking a load of teenagers from Earth to Lunar City. Jude had seized control of the ship, shifting to manual, and managed to steer clear of the Pensacola. Despite most people recognizing Piedmont’s effort as pure heroism and skill, a few parents of students on the school transport had sued, claiming that their children had suffered traumatic mental stress as a result of the incident.

The real culprit would come to justice soon enough. Jude’s employer, Captain Edwin Baker, had hired a freelance programming contractor to refit and upgrade the Clara Nell‘s antiquated navigation system last year. Piedmont had his doubts about the guy when he walked onto the ship with a bottle of cheap champagne in one hand and a PDA in the other and said, “Hey, bitches, I’m here to make this pussy purr. You can call me Vampire. I’ll need my own room while I work. And unlimited holoporn. Pipe that noise right up in all that.”

It should have come as no surprise that an obscene, drunken porn hound like that would do shoddy work that nearly got a ship loaded with children killed along with the crew of the Clara Nell. So far, though, the captain hadn’t had much luck tracking “Vampire” down. Piedmont had some connections in the hacker community, so he considered using a little of his free time in the next week doing what he could to help Baker gain some ground. It demoralized the crew, knowing they couldn’t trust the software responsible for keeping them alive and securing others from harm. It made potential clients nervous about putting their cargo and passengers in the hands of those aboard the Clara Nell. Bad for business. So, they had been forced to spend another ten thousand credits – double what Vampire had charged – to remove the incompetent’s programming and replace it with triple-certified software, just so that they could say with confidence to their clients that the Clara Nell was no longer a death trap.

As Gettleman closed his briefcase, Piedmont stood and extended a hand, saying, “Thanks for your help, Jake.”

“Jacob,” the lawyer corrected, his easy smile withering to a grimace. Still, he shook the offered hand.

“Something wrong with Jake?” Piedmont asked. “Did a Jake murder your parents? Suffocate your dog? Throw your cat in a lake?”

Gettleman bristled. “I’ve just never liked it. Jacob’s fine. You can transmit the rest of my fee within thirty days of your official reinstatement.” He took his briefcase from the table. “Do not hesitate to call if you have any questions or concerns.”

The pilot watched as his lawyer worked his way through the crowd. Gettleman’s smile slithered back onto his face when a reporter from the Consortium Broadcasting Network aimed a journodrone orb at him.

Captain Baker pushed past the impromptu press conference with the lawyer so that he could join Piedmont at the counsel table and shake his hand. He was a plump middle-aged man in a beige button-up shirt, black trousers, and black boots. He had thinning black hair, bald toward the back. “You’ve been a real champ through all this, Jude. I don’t know what we would’ve done if we hadn’t had you at the helm that day.”

“I’m glad I was there too,” Jude said, managing a smile. “But I’m going my own way. Maybe not right now. Maybe not this year. Just…once I help you deal with Vampire and make all of it right, I need my own wings.”

The captain looked confused, his brown eyes narrowing beneath dark brows. He placed his hands on his hips. “I doubled your salary, son. I don’t know what else you want. My chair?”

“It’s not the money,” Piedmont replied, shaking his head. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to shake you down and I’m not trying to force you out. I just want my own ship. It’s personal. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me in the past few years, but we both know that my career doesn’t end on the Clara Nell, right? I’m meant to do more. The next step is branching out with my own ship. I’ve saved up the money. Once Vampire’s sitting in this courtroom instead of me, I’ll put credits down on a new Reveler I’ve had my eye on for the last couple of months.”

Baker sighed, then gave a mordant chuckle. “You’re going to run me out of business and straight into retirement.” He shrugged. “Fine. I wish you nothing but the best, Jude. If you need someone to back your new enterprise, just ask. I’m there for you.”

The exonerated pilot nodded. “Thanks, Cap. I’ll keep that in mind.” He glanced toward Gettleman, who appeared to have warmed to his topic, leading the reporters through the double doors into the main hall of Consortium headquarters. “Look, Mr. Gettleman said I won’t get the license reinstated until the end of this week. You mind if I take a few days?”

A beefy hand clapped him on the shoulder. Baker said, “Take all the time you need, son. No one’s going to argue that you haven’t earned it – least of all me.”

“Great,” Jude said, smiling tautly. “I’ll be in touch when I’m rested.” He gave a curt nod to the captain, then slid out one of the side doors and into a passage that would take him to the service stairwell. Let Gettleman soak up the media attention if he wanted. Piedmont wanted no part of it. He just wanted to get back to his hotel room, check out, and catch the next shuttle to Lunar City to start his hunt for Vampire.

The stairwell door whooshed open at the wave of his hand over a sensor panel. The holographic number 14 twirled slowly in the air. He supposed he could use the exercise. For amusement, Jude counted the steps until he reached 70 and found himself on a dimly lit landing beneath a glowing number seven, facing the half-illuminated form of a tall, gaunt man with spiked silver hair and a flechette pistol gripped in his right hand.

“Wait,” Piedmont said, cold terror gripping his gut as he raised a palm plaintively to the gunman. “Don’t.”

Dozens of metal shards burst from the barrel of the weapon, shredding his dress shirt and penetrating Jude’s torso. He staggered backward and slid down the wall, the pain distant beyond a haze of tingling shock as crimson blood spilled from the wounds peppering his body. He stared up at the shooter. He opened his mouth to ask why, but that just served to spill more blood over his lips and down his chin.

The shooter didn’t stay to finish the job. Instead, he holstered the pistol and then took the stairs down two at a time.

Piedmont stared numbly at the sensor pad affixed about halfway up the wall next to the automatic door that would lead to the seventh floor corridor and, presumably, a chance at survival. He couldn’t walk, though. Couldn’t feel his legs. So he rolled onto his belly and crawled along the concrete platform, pulling himself along with his elbows. The rough surface of the floor quickly rubbed his elbows raw and set them bleeding, but that was nothing to the streams he had dripping from the flechette wounds.

He gazed up at the sensor panel. Just a few feet. Maybe I can reach it, he thought. He raised a blood-slicked hand, fingers flexing for every millimeter they could manage…

…and then brought her perfectly clean palm down to wave over the snooze sensor of the hotel room alarm clock.

Judith Piedmont didn’t remember much about the dream, except the gaunt man’s face, all the blood everywhere, the number seven. She rolled onto her side to check herself for injuries. Nothing. No unwelcome rusty stains on the sheets, either. Her next menstrual cycle wasn’t due to start for at least a week.

“Wonder what the hell that was all about,” she muttered.

She slid out of bed, slipped her feet into blue slippers and then drew the soft white hotel robe around her.

Her heart felt rabbity, all jumpy and fervent. Pull yourself together, she thought. She stepped into the bathroom and said, “Light, mid-setting.” Soft blue-white emanated from bulbs above the mirror.

She pulled her shoulder-length black hair back into a pony tail with a circle of blue and red patterned fabric she plucked off the sink.

Back into the main room of the suite, still dark thanks to the heavy blinds and curtains. She walked to the far wall, which was dominated by a picture window and a sliding glass door that opened onto the balcony. “Curtains open, left,” she said. The ruddy amber glow of Demaria’s binary stars spilled across thick crimson carpet and blue silk bedsheets.

“Christ,” grumbled a voice from the lump shielding his eyes with a pillow. “Seriously, Jude?”

She arched an eyebrow, her back remaining to the owner of the voice. “Balcony door open, left.” She stepped onto the balcony overlooking the city of Alhira. The city stretched from the jungle at the foothills of the Stubtooth Mountains in the west to the rolling gold dunes filling the broad crescent of the Sand Mother Desert to the east and south. To the north, Blackpoint Harbor opened onto the Sea of Brakir. She called back over her shoulder: “You can bring me coffee or you can leave. Either way, we’re done with the bed.”

Jude had picked him up in the Velvet Cushion, a popular hangout for freighter captains and transit haulers making stops on Demaria. He said his name was Petyr, but the ident in his wallet listed his name as Paul Deeson. She wondered briefly how he had chosen the alias. A favorite character from literature? A childhood enemy? His best friend in college? But she didn’t bother asking. Best he not know that she cared enough to sneak a glimpse into his personal effects.

He wasn’t smart, but he was pretty. Especially his eyes, which were deep green flecked with blue. She didn’t need smart if pretty came with the package. But the problem with just being pretty: Those awkward mornings when they want to talk, they want to know what you think, they want to know what you feel, they want to know if you’ll be thinking about them while they’re thinking about you.

Of course, the more she thought about, the more she realized: That was a problem with the ones who were smart too.

Petyr joined her on the balcony with two cups of coffee a few minutes later. He wore a tight black short-sleeve pullover shirt and dark gray trousers with brown sandals on his feet. He set the cups on the small café table and then took one of the chairs. She kept standing, arms braced on the balcony while she took in the view of the sprawling city, including the great statue of the Demarian cultural icon, Altheor, whose mighty legs straddled the popular combat arena. It always seemed telling to Jude that the Demarian arena was a more dominant structure than the senate forum dome, which huddled like an afterthought beside the Opposing Sun Spaceport.

“Staying long enough to take in the fights tonight?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Maybe. Depends on the client.” She turned then, walked to the table, and settled into a seat across from Petyr. She sipped her coffee. Not bad for something cobbled together from random molecules and flavored in an artificer.

Petyr nodded. “You should see it sometime. The Demarians are big on their fights. Crazy. Throats torn out. Wild.” He worked a smile onto his face. “I’ll take you, if you want to go.”

Jude looked toward the city and said, “Don’t get too attached, Petyr. I’m not looking for a boyfriend.”

His laugh sounded forced. “I’m not asking you to be my girlfriend. I’m just offering to take you to the fights. If you’re not interested, fine, just say so.”

She recognized this trap. Passive aggression, intended to provoke a guilty response. He would expect her to say that of course she was interested and he could pick her up around seven. Jude wouldn’t allow herself to stumble into that trap. “Not interested,” she confessed, matter-of-factly.

“Like I said,” he replied. “Fine.” The tone conveyed a chill that seemed anything but mellow. Petyr nudged the cup – blue ceramic with the gilded logo of the Alhira Tower Hotel – and then got to his feet. “I should be going.”

She nodded silent agreement. Watched him go. Heard the front door whoosh shut and beep locked behind him. Good, she thought. She preferred the unwavering reliability of silence and solitude. She didn’t want his need, his emotionality, clouding the memory of a perfectly pleasant night. Why did they feel so compelled to ruin simple gratification with the search for deeper meanings and more long-lasting contacts? It never made sense to her.

She took another sip of coffee, savoring the comfortable isolation against a backdrop of whirring aircars and hovertransports. She remembered the staccato heart business from earlier, wondered if caffeine was really the best choice. Sure, she was still young, mid-thirties, but waking up with that kind of crazy heart rate might be something to worry about. Jude made a note to ask Doctor Ranix to check her out aboard the Havelock. Benefits of keeping a competent medic on payroll, she thought.

Halfway through the cup, Jude heard the chime of her PDA. “Knew it couldn’t last,” she said. She walked back into the room and found the electronic device sitting on a desk next to the holovid display, which she hadn’t activated since arriving in the hotel yesterday. INCOMING LIVE REAL-TIME SUBSPACE COMMUNICATION, announced the text display of the handheld computer. It was an Anyware Sleek, rounded corners and beveled smoked plas display. Seventh generation – she had refused to touch the Sleek Six when it came out in 2652 after she saw the report on the Consortium Broadcast Network about the polydenum core leakages, the rampant account hacking, and the consistent dropped transmissions. When the Sleek Seven came out, she waited in line at the main distribution outlet on Macintosh Station for eight hours to get it because Anyware had reportedly fixed all the bugs from the Six and had packaged it with the complete studio recordings of Dovetail Free, her favorite Lunite boy band that grew up to become one of the galaxy’s most respected and admired adult contemporary groups.

Again, the Sleek chimed insistently, announcing that the incoming communication was coming from: SOURCE: UNRELENTING HARPY. Jude rolled her eyes and sighed. “Incoming, receive and transmit, voice only,” she said. A faint trilling sound signaled that the frequency opened both ways. “Mom,” Jude said. The widow Adelaide Piedmont had retired to the family’s vacation home on Nod Island off the coast of Queen City on Sivad. This gave her far too much time to contemplate new ways to meddle with her oldest daughter’s life. “What’s up?”

“I just hadn’t heard from you in so long, Judith,” her mother said. “Making sure you’re still alive, that’s all.”

“I talked to you yesterday, right after I put down on Demaria. I always call, every time I launch and every time I land. Remember? You’ve always insisted on it. I think I’ve missed a call once or twice, but it was usually for a pretty good reason.” Like the ship nearly taking a header into that black hole, Jude recalled. Or the time that computer virus tore through the life support system and tried to force the crew to inhale fatal doses of methane. Or during that one blood riot on Grimlahd that got her first engineer killed.

“Oh, that’s right,” Adelaide agreed. “When are you finding a nice boy and settling down? You could have the house on Lake Michigan, you know. It’s just sitting there. Penny doesn’t want it. Stephen complains that it smells like cheese, but that’s just his crazy, isn’t it? It is.”

“We’re not having this talk again,” Jude replied.

“Do you think the Chicago house smells like cheese?” her mother persisted.

Well, at least it changed the subject. Sort of. “I haven’t been inside in about ten years, Mom. But, no, I don’t remember it smelling like cheese.”

“You know your father wanted more for you,” Adelaide said.

“Mom.”

“What? I can’t say what’s on my mind? You don’t like it, I suppose you can cut the feed and go about your day. Forget all about your decrepit old mother, wasting away on this fetid rock.”

Jude laughed. “It’s practically a castle. And I know for a fact that Penny and her kids have been visiting. I do talk to other people.”

She heard her mother make that dismissive “feh” noise that had been commonplace for decades. “They don’t even have the latest Timonae fashions here, Judith. Sivad is at least eight months behind the trends. I’m wearing ghastly teal sarongs when the real fashion plates have made the switch to royal blue kimonos. Now I hear flower-print mumus are the rage in Valsho. You ask for that in a Queen City boutique, they’ll just laugh and offer to special order it for triple the price. Absolute travesty, if you ask me. Like the fact that you won’t start a family. Do you know how disappointed your father would be if he were alive today? Really, Judith. Simply appalling.”

“Mom, another transmission’s coming in. I have to go.”

“I didn’t hear any beep thing,” her mother protested. “There’s always a beep thing when…”

Jude didn’t use the voice control this time. Instead, she chose the old-fashioned activation sensor pad, waving her hand over the blue oval and cutting the transmission from Sivad. If she were on Sivad, stuck on Nod Island, she wouldn’t have much choice but to continue listening to her mother’s incessant haranguing about her personal life. So she chalked this up to another benefit of being across the Orion Arm from Adelaide. Thanks to technology, she could limit exposure to below lethal limits.

She didn’t hate her mother. She just got tired of Adelaide treating her like she was still a twelve-year-old girl, living under her roof, according to parental rules. Jude knew it didn’t help that her father, Bronson, had died two years ago. He had been a champ at keeping Adelaide occupied with social events, volunteer groups, and vacations across the cosmos. After he died, Adelaide hunkered down in the mansion on the Sivadian sea and focused mostly on trying to manage her children’s lives from isolation. Mother had her claws pretty deep into Penny, especially with grandchildren on the line. She didn’t try as hard with Stephen, who was older than Jude and also perpetually single despite one marriage that never took.

Jude often resented the fact that Stephen seemed to get a pass from their mother when it came to living a life untethered. What made it all right for him but not for her? Seemed totally unfair. Simply appalling, as her mother might say. She shook her head, sighing. This wasn’t a problem she could solve this morning. It defied her ability. Instead, she knew, she should focus on achievable goals. For example, Jude wasn’t on Demaria for a rest break. She was here for a job. The job couldn’t start until she met the client to get the details.

“Open transmission, connect, voice only. Target: Sandwalker, Stumppaw.” She listened as the three beeps converged into a steady tone as her device broadcast to the Sandwalker estate on the edge of the desert in the city’s outskirts.

Moments later, a gruff rumbling voice answered: “Piedmont. I’ll send an aircar to your hotel. Be ready in ten minutes.”

Time enough to get a shower, she thought. Jude cut the transmission and – “I didn’t know you spoke Spanish” – cloud of silver foil squares dancing in the air – “Wait. Don’t.” – rested a hand on the frame of the bathroom door. Dizziness overwhelmed her senses. She felt her stomach heave. She rushed to the toilet and flung up the lid, then crouched on her knees, ready to vomit.

Even morning sickness wasn’t this bad, she thought. Jude tasted that bitter fluid just before she hurled morning coffee and last night’s sand eel crisp remnants into the toilet bowl…

…and then he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before slowly getting to his feet inside the spaceport bathroom stall.

Jude didn’t know how his day could get much worse. His girlfriend cheated on him. The boss, his girlfriend’s father, oppressed him. Now his Odarite bookie wanted to shake him down over a late payment.

Simply appalling, he thought. Not in his voice, though, which was odd. It sounded exactly like his mother, Adelaide, but she had been dead for thirteen years. – “There’s always a beep thing.” No, it couldn’t be her. The coroner had matched the DNA to the corpse that hikers had found in that Pennsylvania bog. She had been kidnapped at gunpoint by a Timonae who had wanted her hovercar so that he could escape the scene of a robbery, where he had shot a store clerk and three customers. He had forced her to drive the Hall Motors Dalliance luxury hovercar from Chicago to the wilderness of central Pennsylvania, until it ran out of fuel. Wanting no witnesses, the gunman shot her and dumped her body in the swamp before jacking the next car he could grab. The criminal, later captured and identified as Vijixx Fann, stood trial for murder. Last Jude had heard, Fann remained in the Consortium maximum security prison compound on Pluto. He would spend the rest of his life there. Given the typical Timonae lifespan, this would probably amount to about one hundred and fifty years.

If Fann had escaped, Jude might sooner see his mother’s killer standing here than her, unless he had somehow stumbled into a strange parallel reality where she hadn’t been murdered. If that were the case, perhaps it would also be a reality where he wasn’t half a cuckold beholden to his girlfriend’s father for his job and to a sugar-addicted Odarite for rockhopper gambling debts. Jude didn’t think he would ever be so lucky.

So, if not his mother, who?

He spun around to see if some strange woman had crept up behind him in the bathroom. It sometimes happened, given the port’s proximity to the pub. Drunks occasionally selected the wrong door. But he appeared to be alone. Satisfied with this solitude, he waved a hand over the smoked plas of the flush sensor pad and triggered the small maelstrom that swirled away the evidence of his embarrassing loss of control. He stepped out of the stall and approached the sink so he could wash his face and hands.

After drying in front of the molecule dancer, Jude left the employee restroom and found himself back in the utility corridor. He walked about ten yards, past lime green walls over ruddy pink tiles, until the corridor ended at an access door that could be sealed in the event of emergency, such as a fire, a terrorist attack, or a detected contagion outbreak. Through that door, unlocked by an authorized DNA scan, Jude moved into the main atrium of the spaceport.

Zrt’kfr expected him to be at the pub sometime in the next hour. To get downtown, he would need to take his hovercar from the corporate parking tube and motor through afternoon traffic down the Graham Pike. The commute might take about thirty minutes, possibly longer if someone had even so much as a minor collision that resulted without fail in every one else slowing down to get a look. Unfortunately, Jude actually was expected to be on the clock for another two hours. He would need to get across the atrium, down the C Terminal passage, and then through another authorized access door to the parking tube without John Highstreet seeing him.

He walked toward the center of the atrium, a dome of amber and blue stained glass whose design had been inspired sixty years ago by students in the Azazin Youth Academy and made real by some artisans in the white-collar convict wing of the Cococino Mesa Detention Facility off the coast of Western Freegrass overlooking the Stampeding Sea. Spiking upward from the middle of the colorful rotunda was a bronze quartet of huge wheat and corn stalks, the creation of the late but legendary Qua artist, Affi Dunwell. He had told the Consortium News Broadcasting network in 2634 that it signified the fertile potential of Quaquan’s rolling hills. But if he drank enough Four Corners Starglow, Dunwell sometimes confessed that what it really signified was his creative obsession, his inability to stay in a committed relationship, and his overcompensation for failing to perform sexually with his girlfriend at the time. Confronted about this later, in the bright light of sobriety, he would emphatically insist that such comments were nothing more than damnable slander and libel of the deepest derision. And if you could present a holographic recording, Dunwell would whisper conspiratorially that many such deceptions were possible with artificial intelligence technology.

From this vantage point, just behind one of the wheat stalks, Jude peered toward the area near the main entrance doors where he could usually rely on spying John Highstreet at his normal lurking point. No sign of the boss. Good news, Jude thought. He should be able to reach the parking lot undetected, rendezvous with the Odarite, and then return before Leandra’s father had a clue that he was gone.

Just as his spirits lifted on a breeze of relief, the spaceport superintendent’s beefy hand clamped down on Jude’s right shoulder. “Piedmont,” John Highstreet said from behind him.

Slumping, dejected, Jude turned to look up at his employer. How did he do that? The man seemed supernaturally gifted at the art of being precisely where Jude needed him not to be at any given time. It was freakish. He wondered what Highstreet might complain about now. Not tall enough? Not strong enough? Too short? Too fat? Not enough facial hair?

“My office,” the superintendent said in that rumbling voice, with a finality that brooked no proposals of delay or relocation. He walked toward the auxiliary corridor that led past several doors containing the spaceport’s administrative offices.

Jude, drawn along with the inexorable resignation of a leaf caught in a swirling eddy of rainwater destined for a deep gutter, hung his head and shuffled meekly behind the big Qua. He had only entered Highstreet’s office twice before. The first time had been to undergo a final interview before Leandra’s father would relent to hiring him. Highstreet had asked many unexpected questions during that process. For several minutes, he had covered the fundamental concepts involved in ship refueling and maintenance procedures. But then the line of inquiry shifted inexplicably to a much more personal bent.

“Do you envision yourself spending many years with my daughter?” Highstreet had asked.

If he had truly felt compelled to speak the truth, Jude would have answered: “Frankly, sir, I am astonished she’s been with me this long.” But instead he answered: “Many years, yes, sir.”

“Is marriage your intent?”

Jude had knit his brow, frustrated. This seemed utterly backward to him. If, at some point, he thought that he could commit himself to marry Leandra and spend the rest of his life with her, well, wouldn’t it be incumbent upon Jude to seek Highstreet’s blessing then? Hadn’t that been the tradition? Why did Highstreet deem it appropriate to demand an answer to that kind of question when they had only been dating for a matter of weeks? They barely knew each other. And how was this even germane to whether Jude was suitable to work as a fuel dispenser? He didn’t know how best to answer this question without jeopardizing his employment prospects. He gave it a shot, though: “I am very fond of her, but I do not yet know if she would want me for a husband. It would be an honor that I hope to earn.”

Highstreet had harumphed: “Hope all you want. You will never be her husband. You are qualified to replenish a starship’s fuel supply, of that I have no doubt, but I would never trust you with my daughter’s welfare or her long-term success. You get this job because of technical ability. It is in spite of your relationship with her, not because of it. However, if you cause her pain or grief, I will fire you on the spot. Is this understood?”

He could hardly have been clearer, really.

The second time Jude had been summoned to the office had been to face questions about the theft of a valuable decorative ceramic urn from in front of the duty-free shop run by a Centauran named Axirpolitifax. He had been working in the spaceport for about two months before this incident occurred.

Highstreet had said nothing at first, except: “Watch.” He had played a holographic recording of what appeared to be a bipedal humanoid in dark clothes with long sleeves and a hooded shirt that helped obscure from the recording devices, hunched low in the dim light of the spaceport after hours. The thief grabbed the vase, an original Reslienki ornamental from his Dancing Dogs period, and skulked off into the shadows.

The Qua had eyed Jude from beneath a furrowed brow when he asked: “You?”

Jude had stammered. “Me? What? Why would you think that? Of course not, sir!” Of course, it had been. The Dancing Dogs vase had been valued at about 5,700 Consortium credits – a decent down payment on the 50,000 that Jude had owed Zrt’kfr at the time. It had been enough to keep Piedmont’s kneecaps uncrushed for at least a little while longer, but the interest on that borrowed time would come due sooner than he ever would’ve wanted.

If today’s trend continued apace, Jude fully expected that this third visit would end with his sudden unemployment – just in time for the meeting with the Odarite.

The spacious office hadn’t changed much since the last visit: airy, with a floor-to-ceiling window behind the big polished wooden desk that offered a view of the Great Mother Park and its huge canopies of green and yellow leaves bristling from the thick trunks of newground oaks, a name given to these native trees by the original colonists, who in turn were known reverently among the later generations as the Newground Twenty-Three – survivors of the crew of thirty colonists who departed from Earth all those years ago.

On the floor in front of the desk spread a patterned rug of yellow, black, and brown. It was woven from the soft woolen fur of the domesticated gennul – a strange evolutionary hybrid of arachnid and mammal about the size of a Brahma bull, with compound eyes, a thick, sheddable and renewable coat growing on its bulbous torso, and a cud-chewing mouth.

They looked horrifying to Jude, but Leandra had always assured him that they were harmless herbivores. That scarcely mattered to him. He could never stave off the compulsion to hit them with a shoe.

On the wall to the left of the desk hung a painting of a pale-skinned Lunite, seen through the open driver’s side gull wing door of a hovercar with a crumpled hood. The driver was slumped in his seat, hands dangling limp at his sides, chin to his chest. It was a signed print of Klaus Vordmann’s classic “The End of the Party,” which captured the consequences of a Lunar City motorist after a night of revelry in the 22nd Century after celebrating the liberation of the Specialists and the establishment of their sovereign power over Earth’s moon. Highstreet had once said he kept the grim image as a cautionary reminder that all joyful occasions contained the potential for erupting into tragedy. Needless to say, he rarely got invited to parties.

“Sit,” Highstreet said, walking behind his desk and settling into his own chair. Next, he might say: “Fetch. Roll over. Play dead. Show me your belly.”

Jude sat in the chair across from his boss. “Yes, Mr. Highstreet.” He laced his fingers together in his lap and waited in silence for what might come next. Budget cutbacks? Personnel changes? Maybe further analysis of other footage from the vase theft had proven without a doubt that Piedmont had been the culprit behind the crime? Would he leave the office and discover two Qua police officers waiting to take him to jail and await trial for grand theft? Did his future wait on the ocean mesa prison?

“Something has gone wrong,” Highstreet said.

Oh, no, Jude thought. A complaint from a customer? The wrong type of fuel? Had he mishandled spent polydenum matrices? He felt sweat beading on his forehead. “What has?” he asked, not really wanting to know the answer. Instead, he really wanted to get into his car, speed down the Graham Pike, and avoid pissing off the bug-faced bookie waiting impatiently in the tavern.

“The tower contacted me about fifteen minutes ago,” the superintendent said. He swiveled his chair to gaze out the window at the park as the afternoon sun sank toward the treetops. “Distress call from the Saginaw. Leandra’s in trouble.”

Relief. A lifting weight. He shouldn’t have felt pleased by this turn of events. She was his girlfriend, after all. Unfaithful, yes. Deceitful, certainly. But it seemed shameful to find reason to be exuberant in the fact that the crisis that led to this summons had nothing to do with a bad thing that was about to befall him. We reap what we sow, Jude thought. She’s sleeping around on me. Maybe the universe is just throwing a little chaos her way to balance the books for a change. Good for the universe! But…but…what if this wasn’t just a scary incident? What if she was in mortal danger? Her infidelity hurt his feelings and shattered his trust, but it wasn’t enough to justify wishing her dead. “What happened?” Jude asked. “What do we know?”

“They had just dropped out of OtherSpace near the Line of Pain,” Highstreet said. “Nall, probably.” Scalebacks didn’t like salvagers poking around for profits in those glorified heads-on-pikes, those shattered hulls of wrecked enemy vessels that stretched along the border of their territory. The Saginaw had probably just joined the graveyard. “I’ve hired a ship to retrieve her, if she’s alive. I want you to go with them. I need you to represent my interests and hers.”

Jude’s mouth fell open. He was stunned to hear Highstreet, so matter-of-factly, confessing that he needed his subordinate’s help. No condescending tone. Indeed, there was a plaintive quality to it. Then his mouth snapped shut and he looked at the pattern in the rug on the floor below his chair. Zrt’kfr wouldn’t take kindly to a failure to appear on Jude’s part, but Piedmont knew that Highstreet wasn’t going to let him waste any time on errands that stalled a search and rescue mission for his only daughter.

I’m wrong for this, Jude thought. I hate John Highstreet. He hates me. Right now, I resent his daughter. How could I possibly do a good job of representing either of their interests under the circumstances? “She’s with Captain Schraeder,” Jude said. “He survived the Nall before. He’s a soldier. I’m not sure…”

“You’re going, Piedmont,” Highstreet said, waggling a finger at him. “The war hero took her into harm’s way. I need a self-interested coward to make sure she comes back alive. You’re the best man for this job.” Jude twitched. Had the man just complimented him with yet another cutting insult? Highstreet was an undisputed master. Jude opened his mouth to protest more, but the Qua shook his head and continued, “The Havelock leaves within the hour. Report to Captain Salaban. He’s expecting you.”

Jude stood, slowly, still feeling that compulsion to protest, only to have it drowned out by his persistent fear of incurring the wrath of John Highstreet. He remembered Salaban and his reckless Castori pilot from their morning encounter. He also recalled that they were hunting for a part to replace on their damaged thruster nozzle. He doubted seriously that there had been adequate time to acquire, install, and test the new part. They might reach the Line of Pain to rescue Leandra only to find themselves stranded due to engine failure. “Is the Havelock the only option?” Jude asked. “They were having some technical issues.”

“Only option,” Highstreet replied. “Go. If you fail, of course, you are fired.”

“Of course,” Jude agreed.

His PDA – the Anyware Dynamic 3, about four years behind the current top-of-the-line Anyware Parabolic 7 – chirped weakly as Highstreet’s office door whooshed shut with a buzzing click behind Piedmont. He knew who it was before he looked.

“DON’T BE LATE,” the text message read. Source: Z.

Jude sighed. Some things couldn’t be helped. Zrt’kfr had waited this long for his money. He could wait just a little longer. With this defiant mindset – bold, refreshing – he walked down the corridor, took a right where it formed an L, and then tripped over an outstretched leg in blue pants with a purple boot attached. He fell, briefly out of control, but managed to brace against impact with the palms of his hands before his knees thumped hard on the thinly carpeted concrete. Jude rolled swiftly over onto his back, trying to ignore the shrieking throb of his knees, to look up at…

…the light, in and out of focus. Something whirred. He heard voices, intense but measured, calling out vital signs.

Hospital? But what about Leandra? – crumpled squares of foil floated in the air – the gold logo on a blue coffee cup – a pale man, slumped in a car. Going to lose my job, Jude thought. Her father’s going to fire me. “Highstreet,” he muttered aloud as the orderly pushed the hovergurney along.

He heard Captain Baker, calm and reassuring: “Relax, Jude. Just rest. Let the doctors work. We’re here for you.”

…”For me?” she asked, sitting upright on the floor where they had shoved her.

Everything seemed blurry for a moment – “A war hero took her into harm’s way” – “I didn’t know you spoke Spanish” – a tall bronze pillar of corn. Then everything came back into focus. Her eyes went wide and she pressed her right palm flat against her chest, doing her best imitation of surprise. Jude looked from one angry Demarian guard to the other. “I just made a wrong turn, that’s all.”

They had discovered her inside the family vault, deep within the forboding walls of Fortress Darkwhisper – high in the Stubtooth Mountains overlooking the city of Alhira. She had managed to bypass perimeter security, neutralized the toxin nozzles, incapacitated the shrike hounds, dosed six guards with phetraxon, hacked the computerized component of the vault lock and entered the eight-digit combination for the dial component before using a plasma saw to cut through the bars inside the vault so that she could reach the prize.

It was one of Longsnout Darkwhisper’s most valued possessions: An original holographic recording of the opening night performance of the obscure 2428 Demarian opera known as “Sand in the Blood.”

And, it seemed, it was about to get her killed.

SALABAN

“I can do this. It’ll work. You’ll see. It’s a great trick.”

Garunth Salaban, captain of the Reveler-class freighter Havelock, gnashed his fangs and flicked his eye membranes as he tried to orient himself from the sudden burst of confusion.

He huffed through his nostrils, the fresh scent of scorched wiring in the air. And, inexplicably, the taste of something sweet and tingly on his tongue. – “Seriously, man, I think we’re talking about a mental health issue.” He didn’t recognize the voice.

“So can I try it?” That voice, of course, he recognized. His Castori pilot, Ochochin.

“Is something burning?” Salaban asked.

The Castori’s eyes widened and he looked around, sniffing with his own snout. “I don’t smell anything wrong.”

That didn’t help put Salaban any more at ease. He stood from his command chair, then strode through the hatchway leading into theHavelock’s main corridor. He kept sniffing air as he went, but both the acrid electrical fire smell and the strange sweet taste dissipated with each step. By the time he reached the engineering chamber – where the Mekke engineer, Ercrax, busied himself with ongoing diagnostics and maintenance – the sensations had evaporated.

“Everything okay back here?” the captain asked.

The insectoid swiveled its rounded head, reflecting a multitude of Salabans in its glossy black compound eyes. Mandibles clacked. “All systems are performing optimally,” Ercrax replied. “Have you detected phenomena that would suggest my analysis is incorrect?”

Salaban tilted his head. I certainly thought I had, he thought. He didn’t voice this confusion, however. “Just making sure,” the Zangali grunted.

He walked back to the bridge, feet thumping heavily on the deckplates, and then settled back into his chair. Salaban crossed his thick arms over his chest, frustrated and troubled by the mysterious sensory experiences. He didn’t like it. Such omens and portents usually preceded medical crises. Perhaps he was ill. Maybe something he had eaten last night in the Last Orders Tavern on Tomin Kora. He knew it had been a mistake to dine off-ship, especially on a death trap world like TK, but meeting after meeting with Smugglers Guild members and clients left him with little time to sneak back to the Havelock for dinner.

Now they drifted in high orbit above the rocky surface of Tomin Kora, attitude thrusters boiling amber against the blue and violet backdrop of the landmark nebula that surrounded the headquarters of Lord Fagin’s vast criminal empire.

Ochochin hummed softly – a tune that reminded Salaban of a horrible Demarian opera that he had once heard – and then asked, “Can I try it?”

“What?” Salaban asked, not at all sure what Ochochin was talking about. But if it got him to stop humming that maddening song, then what harm might come of affirming the Castori’s request? “Fine, fine. Do it.” A thoughtless decision he would certainly come to regret later. But, for now, it dissuaded the persistent Ochochin from pestering further about anything. “Plot a course to Quaquan and proceed.”

The pilot bobbed his snout, tapping a sequence of numbers into the navigation computer. His paw rested on a slider capped with red plastic, which he nudged forward to accelerate the Havelock toward full sublight velocity. Then he let his stubby fingers creep to the right, toward a slider capped with yellow plastic, marked with the words: SUBLIGHT THRUSTER. This slider he pushed forward and then swiveled a J-shaped blue clasp to lock the slider in position. “Accelerating to faster-than-light jump velocity. Should achieve max speed in about five minutes.”

Salaban interlaced his clawed fingers. He pondered the meeting with Majordomo Grim. It hadn’t gone as well as the captain had hoped, but it certainly could have been much worse, given Grim’s reputation. He had known it would be impossible to explain away the loss of the cargo that had been waiting on that airfield near the North American continental divide. If the Havelock had arrived five minutes earlier, everything would’ve worked out differently. It would’ve worked out better. But, instead, they arrived to find Vanguard troops swarming the field, arresting the traitorous suppliers – a couple of Vannie quartermasters from the military’s planetside headquarters in Colorado Springs – and confiscating the plasma rifle parts. Lord Fagin wanted those parts, critical for maintenance and repairs of illegally obtained military-grade hardware that had been distributed to pirates and smugglers throughout the Fringe.

“I cannot help but find it curious,” Grim had said as they sat across from each other at a table in a shadowy corner of the tavern beneath the great dome on Tomin Kora, “the timing.” His tone was calm and measured, but his eyes glinted with an unmistakable anticipation. The set of his mouth, his jaw, made him seem predatory. Waiting to pounce.

The captain had tilted his snout, huffing air through his nostrils and flicking a forked tongue. “Does Lord Fagin suspect treason on my part? On the part of my crew? Because, I assure you, we are nothing but loyal to him. That incident wasn’t our doing. In case you forgot, we had to flee. Vanguard fighters. Vanguard gunstars, once we hit orbit. They tried to shoot the Havelock out of the sky.” They had come close, too. Only quick thinking and expert maneuvering by Ochochin, plus some re-channeling of system resources by Ercrax, had saved them from certain destruction

“A convincing smokescreen, perhaps,” the majordomo had mused.

Salaban didn’t appreciate the insinuation. He might work outside the established rules and regulations recognized by governments in the Stellar Consortium and the Parallax, but he remained a Zangali. Culturally, his people took intense pride in their unshakable dedication to honor, duty, and family. He had memorized and could recite on a moment’s notice the great deeds of his ancestors for at least a hundred generations. Grim certainly knew that Garunth Salaban had once served in the Vanguard infantry, so a token amount of doubt might be expected under normal circumstances. But the circumstances under which Salaban departed Vanguard service were anything besides normal. He had demanded a discharge, quitting as a conscientious objector after the Stellar Consortium refused to take military action against the Nall after his family died in the Akril Massacre on Grimlahd nine years ago. He would have died for the Vanguard until they turned their backs on the bloody deeds of September 17, 2645. After Yonalab and Thubrun, after little Gorthus and reliable Brolkuth, after the Doblonur twins from his sister Orulata’s marriage to Surlahun – after their bodies lay scattered on the streets of Akril, gunned down by the Nall for “unlawful assembly,” their blood pooling and streaming and pouring into the gutters. Left unavenged by the powerful Vanguard. Garunth Salaban could no longer serve and sleep at night. So he gave up the uniform and departed the service without leave at the rank of lieutenant. Anyone who questioned his loyalty did so at their own peril.

But he could understand, to a certain extent, why Grim might be suspicious. It wasn’t that great a stretch to imagine an AWOL Vannie working a deal with the military to turncoat Lord Fagin in exchange for a clean record, no prison time, and maybe even complete reinstatement at prior rank. Nor was it a stretch to imagine that the AWOL part had been part of a setup devised to give Garunth cover to infiltrate Fagin’s Riches. It had happened before. Almost always, it ended with the infiltrator’s demise.

He also understood that the majordomo was right hand to the figurehead who kept him gainfully employed. Salaban knew that he couldn’t act violently against Grim, no matter how angry he might get or how offended he might feel, and it wasn’t simply a matter of self preservation. Ochochin and Ercrax also relied on Lord Fagin for their livelihood. He had a duty to them, as his crew and as his extended family. If he harmed Grim, his friends would suffer. He would lose his ship. In fact, he would most likely die. So, he would fight the impulse to tear the human’s throat out. But that didn’t mean that he had to sit quietly and take the abuse.

“You may call me ugly,” Salaban had said, snarling, revealing rows of yellow-white fangs. “You may complain about my foul breath. But never question my honor, soft thing. We did not betray you or the Pirate King. We sustained minor damage to the hull. We lost income. By now, you must have hacked into our accounts in search of surprise payments from Sortie offshore accounts. You will have found no such deposits.”

“That is true,” Grim had agreed. “We have studied the records. They appear to support your claims. And that is why you are going to leave this bar with your head still safely secured upon your shoulders. But if you lose another valuable cargo, we may have another conversation like this. The ending may not be so pleasant next time.”

A chiming noise pinged from Ochochin’s console, drawing the captain back to here and now aboard the Havelock. “FTL velocity achieved,” the Castori announced. “Engaging OtherSpace Drive.”

With a flash of blue-white engulfing the Havelock‘s hull, they instantly found themselves careening down the knife edge of time and space, between all realities and none, simultaneously.

The next chance to fail would come after they arrived on Quaquan to pick up a shipment of polydenum that had been lifted from the refinery on Morrigan, Sivad’s toxic but mineral-rich moon, and shipped by an intermediary sympathetic to Fagin’s Riches or, more accurately, addicted to the ample money such a transaction would certainly yield. Get the shipment. Return to Tomin Kora. Simple, Salaban thought.

His commlink chirped. Moments later, he heard the Mekke engineer, Ercrax, say, “Captain, we have a problem.” His eye membranes flickered as he glanced around…

…and saw the human with black curly hair staring at him, frowning impatiently, briefcase in hand. “I can’t seem to find my client.”

Salaban’s fangs clicked together as dizziness swept over him in a flash of images, sound, and smell – foil wrappers dancing on air, Vanguard soldiers spilling out of the bushes surrounding a clearing, a man with spiky silver hair with cold-blooded murder in his eyes, the stench of cooked wiring. “Who?” he finally managed to ask. The question wasn’t as specific as the briefcase man might think. Salaban didn’t know who this stranger was or who the client might be. He wasn’t entirely sure who he was himself.

“Jude Piedmont,” Briefcase Man replied. He shifted the case from his right hand to his left, then used the right hand to scratch the back of his neck. “He’s my client. Last time I saw him was in the courtroom, but I thought I’d find him waiting down here after I finished with the reporters.”

By the time Jacob Gettleman said the word “courtroom,” Salaban had forgotten all about that brief burst of queasy uncertainty. He had known the lawyer nearly eight years, for as long as the Zangali had worked as security chief of the Stellar Consortium courthouse building in New York City. He didn’t know the client, Piedmont, personally, but certainly knew him from the news vids about the Clara Nell and the Pensacola. “Are you sure he didn’t leave the building?” the guard asked. “Maybe he went home.” Still, he anticipated Gettleman’s predictable request to check the building holocams, just to be sure. That probably saved Piedmont’s life. Salaban quickly flicked through images of elevator cabs and stairwells until he found a platform with a man sprawled on the floor in a spreading pool of crimson. “He’s hurt,” the Zangali growled, swiveling his snout to look toward Gettleman. “Shot, looks like.” His clawed fingers were already tapping a desktop button to signal emergency services for an ambulance and city police investigators.

“How did that happen?” Gettleman shouted angrily. “What are you doing down here? Sleeping? Why aren’t you people checking for weapons? Isn’t that why taxpayers spend so damned much on the sensors by the front doors?”

Salaban rose from his chair behind the C-shaped counter in the lobby to loom above Gettleman. “Sometimes they don’t come in the front door,” the security chief snarled. “Yell at me again, you’re going through one of the windows.” He never liked it when anyone questioned his competence or, even worse, his honor. His parents had raised him in the blood red cavern cities of Mars with true respect for elders and authority, and he had a deep and abiding recognition of the importance of maintaining integrity and honor in the face of all temptations to stray from the path of righteousness. They had wanted him to join the Temple of Zan as a warrior priest, and it was a calling that he had considered for at least a little while in his adolescence. But, in the end, Garunth Salaban had opted to serve a tour of duty with the Vanguard against the Nall during the turmoil. He had been shot, nearly lost his left arm, and won an honorable discharge. After leaving the service, Salaban had finished his education and sought work in the private sector on Earth. His parents didn’t entirely approve of his choices, but they did respect them.

He opened a cabinet behind the counter, pulled out a white case with a red cross emblazoned upon it. He would need to do what he could to stabilize the human until first responders arrived on the scene. He would have to answer questions posed by the police. Then he would have to hunt down the shooter, because he took this violence on his watch as such an intense affront against his sense of honor. He would find the shooter. Then what? Subdue him? Turn him over to the authorities? Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on how well he begs, Salaban thought.

“Stay here,” he ordered the lawyer. “Wait for the police. Lead them up when they arrive.”

Gettleman stood fixed to his spot in front of the desk, briefcase in hand, apparently content to follow Salaban’s directions. He turned to look toward the building’s front door and waited, while the Zangali thumped toward an elevator that would take him to the seventh floor. Before Salaban could summon the elevator, however, the lawyer called out: “Hey!”

The security chief turned and asked, “What?”

“You’re leaving me here alone and unarmed and there’s a maniac on the loose with a weapon,” Gettleman said. He set his briefcase on the desk. He crossed his arms. An eyebrow arched. “If I get shot, you get sued.”

Salaban plucked the commlink from the pocket of his blue security vest. It was an Anyware Signalmaster – not top of the line, no subspace capacity, but adequate for municipal communications. They were prone to outages if distances got too great between receivers, so Salaban had secured signal boosters through the city budget office to make sure that his calls reached from the lobby all the way to the roof, if necessary.

Into his commlink, Salaban said: “Security personnel, we have a breach. Suspect with weapon remains at large. One person down, serious injuries. Unknown suspect description. Lock down your sectors. Watch for suspicious behavior. Scan for weapons. We have a civilian in the lobby who needs protection. Calabratrarios, he’s all yours.” The elevator doors whooshed open. He stepped inside and tapped the button labeled “7” with a clawed finger. “Lethal force authorized.” The doors whooshed shut.

His beady brown eyes shifted almost immediately to the holographic placard displaying the most recent lift inspection report. Apparently, the cab was due for its most recent inspection on Oct. 29, 2654. Slightly overdue. Salaban grunted in disappointment. He had put Buteo in charge of cab inspections. Something apparently fell through the cracks. Salaban was musing on this laxity when he noticed movement in the reflection of the polished metal control panel. Above and behind. He swiveled his snout to look up toward the open access hatch in the roof of the elevator, just in time to see a booted foot swinging his way. It slammed into his face and sent him reeling sideways…

…but instead of immediately slamming into the wall of the moving elevator car, Salaban kept going, stumbling and then sprawling in the yellow-orange sand as the crowd roared in favor of the violence.

He tasted bland grit in his mouth, where it mingled with gooey saliva and salty blood, and then spat out the mixture in a huff.

Thoughts and images bounced through his mind: “Depends on how well he begs.” A scattering of silver foil wrappers. Someone on the floor, blood pooling around them. “Captain, we have a problem.”

He rubbed the aching right side of his snout, then slowly got back to his feet and turned to face his opponent in the battle ring of the open-air Demarian combat arena. Around the sand-filled oval, which was divided into combat sections by stacks canvas sandbags, stood thousands of Demarians and offworlders – in bleachers, in aisles, and in the more exclusive balconies that were elevated above the commoners. They roared. They chanted. They pumped their fists like pistons in the air. The massive statue of mighty Altheor, the Demarian leader who helped thwart a Nall invasion of the homeworld centuries ago, rose hundreds of feet into the air above the stadium.

The woman looked battered and bruised, blood streaking the left side of her face, her mouth swollen on the right. Her short-sleeve tunic shirt, once white, was now mostly pink and red with splattered blood. The fabric around her neck was ripped. The left sleeve was gone. She was missing one boot. The left leg of her beige pants had been torn off above the knee, where her leg bled. She raised both hands, palms out, and he could see the serrated cuts where his claws had torn through the skin of her forearms. “We don’t have to do this,” she said.

“Don’t listen to Piedmont,” shouted the Demarian nobleman, Longsnout Darkwhisper, from his perch in the balcony above the Alhira arena. “Finish her, Garunth. You do want to see your family again, don’t you?”

His family? That seemed an odd thing to offer – or threaten with. He had lost his family during the slaughter in Akril. The Vanguard had turned a blind eye to the murderous actions of the Nall. Hadn’t they? Or had they? He felt terribly confused. The Zangali made a lame “oof” noise as he struggled to make sense of the situation. He had almost come to grips with it all – his family was quite alive, but apparently in danger of dying if Garunth failed to win this match in the arena – when the woman, Jude Piedmont, hurled herself at him, charging full bore, and then leaped in the air with her legs stretched toward him, intent on driving her feet into his chest. She struck with surprising power, knocking Salaban over backward. He might have admired her spirit if he hadn’t become so infuriated by the pain she had inflicted.

Salaban landed on his back and Piedmont crouched over his chest, pinning his arms against the sand with her knees and clutching the sides of his snout with her bloody hands. She leaned close and whispered through clenched teeth, “I don’t want to kill you.”

“Too bad,” the Zangali growled. “I need you dead.”

…the words compelled Ochochin to spin around in his chair at the navigation console to blink nervously at the captain, gulping. “It’s just a radial coupler! I don’t think threats of violence are called for.”

Salaban huffed, his jaw falling open in confusion as he looked from left to right and then back at the Castori pilot. He thought he could still feel gritty grains of sand on his tongue, could taste his own blood. But, then, he also felt brief elation at the thought that his family hadn’t died after all and that he might be able to save them from a cruel fate. He lost them all over again, saw their bloody corpses scattered in the mud of Apex Thoroughfare in Akril on Grimlahd. Despair and rage tore through him. And then he heard a stranger’s voice in his mind: “I get shot, you get sued.” In the corner of his eye, the captain thought he saw a shower of crumpled silver foil wrappers tumbling from ceiling to floor.

“I think,” Salaban said, staring at his clawed hands in his lap. He wasn’t sure what was happening, but he didn’t like it. This felt suspiciously like what Salaban expected insanity must be. Muddled thinking, strange visions, phantom smells. He was reminded of the old doomsayer, Oortuth Manabal, who had run through the streets of Akril, tearing out patches of his own scaled flesh as he screamed about the boiling sulfur and the winged pink demons that only he seemed capable of seeing.

Coming unglued from reality seemed as though it would be catastrophically bad for business.

Shame that their last physician, a Light Singer named refugee named Voluanfel, had died three weeks ago in a dark alley mugging on Tomin Kora. The fool had gone roaming with his medical kit, intent on saving the poor and downtrodden. He had been convinced that the monsters would give him safe passage because he was a healer. Salaban had tried persuading him to reconsider, to no avail. Voluanfel never came back.

They had yet to find a replacement. Maybe they’d find a likely candidate at their next stop. But he didn’t expect that they’d have time to hunt for a new doctor to serve on the ship. They needed to pick up that polydenum from Four Corners and return to Tomin Kora with due haste. Already on warning, weren’t they? No need to make Grim any crankier than he was already. The doctor would have to wait. Until then, he would make do with his own best advice: “I think I’ll get some rest. Wake me when we reach Quaquan.”

He ducked under the hatch leading into the main hallway, took three steps toward the crew quarters, and then stopped. Garunth Salaban didn’t feel tired at all. He found himself wondering why he thought he needed to get sleep. He had a vague sense that something had perturbed him, but he suspected that it was the fact that he had given Ochochin permission to break the Havelockwith this maneuver. Sure, they would shave a few minutes off their trip to Quaquan, but they would lose that time (and then some) as well as money fixing the thruster nozzle coupling.

No, he didn’t need sleep. He needed to have a chat with the engineer.

Salaban walked past the crew quarters, feet thunking on the deckplates until he reached the hatchway into engineering.

“How bad is it?” the captain asked.

The Mekke engineer, Ercrax, hunched over a worktable in a brightly lit corner of the chamber, just to the left of the thrumming OtherSpace Drive. He was using one of his four clawed appendages to manipulate a holographic image of the damaged section of the thruster nozzle. Ercrax zoomed the image to the radial coupler, captured via external holocam. It was bent to the point of nearly breaking.

“We will lose the coupler when we enter Quaquan’s atmosphere,” the Mekke replied. “It is one of three couplers holding the nozzle in place. The redundancy means that it is not a life-threatening hazard to leave the coupler unrepaired for the short term. However, the loss of one means that, structurally, the remaining two must compensate while the unsupported portion of the nozzle endures additional stress. Eventually, perhaps within a matter of days of normal use, those remaining couplers will collapse and then we run the risk of nozzle separation. Depending on how and when that occurs, it could be very bad for us or it could be very bad for some unsuspecting people living planetside.” Ercrax swiveled in his chair to face the Zangali captain. “Suffice it to say, our employer will find no silver lining to the dark cloud of publicity if civilians should perish because of our slack maintenance work.”

Salaban grunted, but bobbed his snout in agreement. “All right. We’ll get a replacement on Quaquan.”

GRIM

The majordomo loved heroes.

Heroes stood for things. Heroes troubled themselves with a conscience. Heroes got in the way of self-interested progress.

They gave him purpose. They challenged him. He nudged them to betray their beliefs. He manipulated them to act against conscience. He toppled them from their mighty pedestals of righteousness.

And, if none of that worked, he killed them.

Everyone knew him as Grim, right hand of Lord Fagin the Pirate King. For many, it seemed he had sprung into being, fully formed, a gaunt figure with spiky white hair and mordant demeanor, clad all in black.

That wasn’t true, of course. He hadn’t always been Grim. His parents had given him another name, he just hadn’t used it in the past thirty years. Not since he had been a hero in need of toppling.

He had been born just after breakfast on a winter morning in the Midwestern Territory of North America, on the outskirts of Chicago, in 2597. His parents were Everett and Dolores Shearer. Father had worked on the team at Sassimo Flight that had designed the original Reveler-class freighter. Mother won awards as a holojournalist, traveling the cosmos in search of the next big story with her Anywhere Vidcap orb and the famous brown trenchcoat with the pink poodle embroidered on the lapel.

They named their son Paul, after Dol’s father, who had founded a company called Interstellar Snack Foods. Back then, ISF was best known for Blue Milk Wafers, which proved a most popular treat among the Castori. But in 2603, ISF introduced a sweet and savory brown and yellow confection known as Fizzy Cake. Fizzy Cakes took the Orion Arm by storm, their trademark silver foil wrappers with red lettering drifting amidst the refuse on every planet from Earth to Tomin Kora.

As a child, Paul Shearer had enjoyed Fizzy Cakes, perhaps a little too much. He remembered the teasing during the fat years of his adolescence. In later school years, Paul had shed much of that weight playing small forward on the basketball team. He had never dreamed of becoming a professional athlete. He knew he was too short, too erratic in his talent, to take the jump to pro ball. Really, he had joined the team for the exercise, encouraged by his parents.

But there had been moments, flickers of chance, when the idea of a basketball career hadn’t seemed so outlandish – like the time he skyhooked the ball over Ronnie Lofton, center for the Evanston Outlaws, or that last second shot he took against the Red Hills Titans from just past half court that no one in their right mind ever would’ve thought possible.

In the end, though, he had taken a job as an officer with the Chicago Police Department. A rookie, fresh out of the academy, Paul had ambitions to rid the streets of organized crime. Yes, years later, he recognized the irony. But at the time, he had harbored the fervent belief that an ongoing concerted effort by the proud men and women of CPD could tear apart the insidious web of corruption that persisted in the area. Had, in point of fact, persisted for centuries despite the best efforts of law enforcement. What made him think that he had a better chance of eliminating organized crime than the hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of police officers who had gone before him? What made him so special?

Well, the answer had been simple, hadn’t it? Miranda Colvin. She had believed in him. Really, that was all it took to convince Paul Shearer that he could overcome calcified power driven by greed, addiction, and despair. He wouldn’t realize until a few years later how much more powerful those factors were. Certainly, he understood it now. Relied on them, didn’t he? They were the fuel that drove the massive engine of Fagin’s Riches.

Hadn’t he come a long way since those early days of heady idealism, when he woke up each day, put on that dark blue uniform, let Miranda pin that brass badge on his chest with a wicked grin, and then sent him out onto the streets to save the city from itself. Now he knew better. He knew the scorching heat of the fire. Better to steer clear. Better to let it burn, he knew.

He watched the Zangali stomp grumpily away, weaving lunkishly through the tables of the Motherlode Tavern on his way to the door. Grim considered the captain a potential liability, despite the fact that he had no evidence to suggest that Salaban had worked in collusion with the Vanguard to disrupt that weapons parts shipment. In truth, he didn’t worry at all that the Zangali might have mixed loyalties between his former masters in the military and the Pirate King. Instead, what worried Grim was the obvious axe that Salaban still ground against the Nall for their merciless slaughter of his kin on Grimlahd. That simmering drive for vengeance, ready to boil through everything, kept Salaban constantly on the verge of eruption. Grim suspected that it was only a matter of time before the captain exploded in a burst of rage and madness. He would get himself killed, along with his crew.

However, Grim felt that Salaban’s inevitable self-destruction was a problem that could wait for another day. Right now, he had a more immediate concern.

As Captain Salaban passed out the door toward Brigadoon Boulevard, a wiry young man with a swirl of black, red, and green hair atop his head came sauntering in. His bony right elbow thumped against the Zangali’s hip. Both stopped. Salaban glowered down his snout at the human with the pasty white skin, brightly rouged cheeks, and sharp nose pierced by two gold and silver buds, plus a gray cylindrical-piercing that stretched out under his right eye where it emitted a holographic heads-up display. The smaller human smiled broadly with lips painted purple and said, “If you want my number, John Henry, you just have to ask.”

The captain gave a bemused grunt, then disappeared into the violet-blue night.

Ferdinand Glengarry Magellan Cottonswill – known in renegade computer programmer circles as “Vampire” – shouted after the Zangali: “You don’t know what you’re missing!” But then he shrugged and continued toward the majordomo’s corner table, spun a chair around so that it was facing with the back rest against the table before dropping onto the cushion, straddling the chair with his legs and placed his elbows on the table. He rested his chin in his hands. “You look like a man deep in thought, Grimsley,” Vampire observed. “What’s bunching your underbits tonight? Love troubles? Unwelcome twist of plot in your favorite Demarian soap opera? Feeling not so fresh?”

Grim’s eyes twitched, almost imperceptibly, at the hacker’s commentary. He did not smile in amusement. He never did. Not around Vampire, at least. Grim didn’t care for the young man’s excessive familiarity, his flamboyance, or his relentless attempts at button-pushing. In fact, the only reason that the hacker hadn’t turned up dead in a Tomin Kora alley during the past few years was the simple matter of his utility. Vampire knew many tricks for infiltrating protected computer systems throughout the Orion Arm – even some of the more unyielding targets in the Stellar Consortium and Parallax. That also meant he knew plenty of tricks for protecting against such intrusions, which proved useful numerous times when government intelligence agencies tried hacking into Fringe systems. So, for the foreseeable future, Grim needed Vampire alive to do his job. This occasional needling, it seemed, would be a small price to pay.

“Did Schraeder take the bait?” Grim asked.

“Oh, sweetie, you know he gobbled every bit of it in a single swallow,” the hacker replied in a conspiratorial whisper. “I left him a digital trail he couldn’t ignore, right up to and including a manifest of valuable jewelry aboard a ship in the Line of Pain called the Tortuga. He’s going after it. Should be leaving within the next couple of hours.”

“Good,” the majordomo said, lacing his fingers together. Schraeder had been a special project of Grim’s – a prominent war hero, bona fide, who had once made the unfortunate choice of speaking aloud of his determination to thwart Lord Fagin’s grip over independent cargo hauling in the Orion Arm. It had taken several months of careful manipulation to freeze out the crew of theSaginaw, shifting cargos to any and every other possible ship. Sure, it might have been quicker, easier, and cheaper to just blow up the Saginaw or put a slug in Schraeder’s brain, but where was the job satisfaction in that? Grim savored the work that had gone into this orchestration. Meanwhile, Leandra had done her job with the usual perspicacity. Weakened financially, weakened morally, Schraeder must have found himself sorely tempted by the prospect of a quick and easy payday to bring the Saginaw back to a reliably paying basis. Salvation waited on the Line of Pain. “Credits will be transferred to the usual account,” Grim said.

The hacker gave a wicked grin and then stood, spinning the chair around so it faced the proper direction once more. “A pleasure doing business with again, Grimsdale. As always.” With that, Vampire made his way toward the tavern’s front door.

Grim waited for the hacker to vanish out the door before he got to his feet, smoothed the front of his silver-trimmed dark blue tunic, and turned to walk through the back door into the dimly lit, grimy kitchen area. The one-armed cook, a bushy bearded human named John Kroll, stirred a once-washed ladle in a big dented metal pot. The pot contained a heavily spiced stew full mostly of imported vegetables and stray animals – some of them not rats. This showed up on the tavern menu as “Tomin Stew,” but was known more commonly among the locals as “Ptomaine Stew.” Grim didn’t say a word, didn’t even look at the cook, as he walked past toward the stockroom with the hidden door. Beyond that door, he would find a tunnel, which in turn would lead to an elevator that would carry him down to Lord Fagin’s underground palace. Grim had made this passage hundreds of times before and Kroll had been here through many of them, and they had never exchanged a word, which seemed to suit them both just fine.

On this occasion, however, Grim heard someone say: “I work better with a buzz.”

He stopped at the stockroom door and turned to look back at Kroll. “What was that?” Grim asked.

The cook ceased his stirring, lifted the ladle from the pot, and glanced in Grim’s direction. His eyes went wide with surprise and his mouth hung open lamely. “What was what?” Kroll managed to reply, stuttering through it.

The majordomo narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “You said something. Something about working better with a buzz. It seemed an odd thing to say to anyone, but especially to a boss.”

Kroll shook his head frantically and dropped his ladle on the scum-splattered floor, where it bounced three times before coming to rest half under the stove. “I think you must’ve misheard, Mr. Grim,” the cook insisted. “I didn’t say anything like that. I was just minding my business, counting to one thousand churns. I think I made it to nine fifty three. Or was it nine forty three? Christ. I’m gonna have to start again.”

Grim frowned. Now that he thought about it, the cook’s voice didn’t sound anything like the voice that had spoken in favor of a buzz while working. In fact, that voice had sounded a lot like Vampire’s, hadn’t it? Again, his eyes narrowed as he started looking around the kitchen for signs of a transmitter. He wouldn’t put it past the hacker to attempt a prank like this.

Kroll reclaimed the ladle from the floor, licked it to check the flavor, and apparently decided that whatever clumps of detritus the utensil had acquired from its adventure with gravity could only add to the succulence of the meal. He resumed spinning the big spoon in the soupy mixture.

Unable to locate the transmitter after a few minutes, Grim finally decided that it just didn’t matter. He waved a hand dismissively, pulled open the fake pantry in the northern wall, and walked through …

…the door from the roof of the courthouse skyscraper and onto the platform with the swirling holographic number twenty, flechette pistol in hand and fully loaded after picking it up from the cache under one of the air conditioning outflow vents.

Slowly, steadily, methodically, Grim made his way from floor to floor, his calm intent focused entirely on the job at hand: the flawless execution of Jude Piedmont. Grim wasn’t sure who hired him. He never was. He never cared, as long as the money showed up in the Antimone-based account as directed.

Paul Shearer got the nickname, “Grim,” from a colleague during his early days at the Consortium Intelligence Service. Presumably, Akamatsu Perez bestowed the name upon him because he had never seen him smile. However, the assassin felt that the moniker failed to do him justice. It simply wasn’t accurate. He wasn’t moody. He wasn’t given to dark fits of morose pondering. He didn’t walk around scowling at everyone he met. In the fuller analysis, a more competent CIS agent would have also noticed that he didn’t smile. Didn’t laugh. Didn’t cry. He was well-practiced at demonstrating zero emotion whatsoever. A more accurate nickname would have been “Blank.” Nevertheless, the name had stuck. It had, in fact, outlived the source. Perez had died three years ago, in 2651, during a botched assassination attempt against the Sivadian coup leader, Lawrence Montevedo.

So, why not change it? Certainly, he could have done so, especially after departing government service to become an independent contractor. But…in the end, Grim had kept the name, because it supplied an ample amount of gravitas to go with his cold-blooded reputation. In short: it was great for business.

He reached the fourteenth floor about the time that he was nearly overwhelmed by an inexplicable stench, a mixture of wet dog, cabbage, and sweaty feet. The odor struck him like a punch to the olfactory. His brow furrowed. His mouth gawped. His eyes widened. He grimaced! Anything but “Blank,” wasn’t he? In his mind’s eye, Grim saw a ladle bounce on a dark and gummy floor. He saw a woman, bruised and bloody, slamming her feet into the chest of a Zangali on a battlefield of orange-yellow sand. Vigorously, he shook his head, closing his eyes, and pinching his nose with the hand that wasn’t clutching the pistol. He stood with his back flat to the wall and stared up at the rotating number fourteen in the air above him. Grim risked another breath and drew in nothing but the usual bland nothingness of recycled air.

Resuming his trek downstairs, he noticed his gun hand trembling. Uncertainty. Surprise. Strange visions and phantom smells didn’t usually add up to good news on the job. He had known a couple of people diagnosed with brain tumors who had reported similar phenomena. Grim didn’t want a brain tumor. More to the point, he couldn’t afford one right now. Tumors looked terrible on a resume. Small or big, benign or malignant, it just didn’t matter. What would the next client think if he heard that Grim had to abort a kill over something like that? A worthless clump of cells? It would totally undermine all the gravitas of his nickname. They would end up giving him a new name. Maybe Tumie? Or Clump? Or Blob? None of these suggested a reliable, high-price assassin. They didn’t suggest a go-to guy for wet work. In short: It was bad for business.

Grim peered through the slit window in the white-painted metal door that granted access from the fourteenth floor landing to the main courtroom corridor. From this vantage point, he had a perfect line of sight to the heavy double oak doors, currently closed but soon to open. He did his best to keep his back to the lens of the security monitor, which would feed visuals back to the facility’s powerful facial recognition programming. He doubted that his image and information would be stored in any conventionally accessible system. All evidence of Paul Shearer had been thoroughly scrubbed from public records within days after his hiring by the CIS. However, after the shooting of a man in the Consortium’s central courthouse on Earth, Grim absolutely expected that investigators would recognize the work of a professional and, most likely, someone government-trained. If investigators kicked the evidence over the line to CIS, it would take just a matter of seconds for them to trace the murder to Grim. So, he took nothing for granted. He wore a black jogging suit with white stripes down each leg and sleeve. He wore black sunglasses. He wore black gloves, black sneakers, and a black webbed net over his spiky silver hair to capture any stray follicles that might drop as evidence.

The PDA clipped to his hip vibrated for attention. He pulled it free and glanced at the display: “ADJOURNING. OPERATION PROCEEDS.” The target, Jude Piedmont, must have successfully fended off the lawsuit, which meant the pilot of the other vehicle would face the litigious wrath of parents whose children got a scare during the near collision of the Clara Nell and the Pensacola. If Grim were a gambling man, he might put money on the proximity of his employer to the Consortium Education Agency, because not only would these parents come after the CEA’s deep pockets, but Piedmont, if he was smart, would also go after the organization for his own payback due to emotional pain, suffering, and income loss due to reputation breach. The CEA could settle their disputes with families of the young passengers of the Pensacola quietly and with relatively little expense. But Piedmont had a gung-ho attorney, Jacob Gettleman, who would lick his chops staring at the fat bank accounts of the government agency. He could draw the courtroom adventure out for at least two or three years, continuously painting Piedmont as a martyr until a jury agreed and granted a judgment of billions of credits. It could cripple the agency financially, besides just bogging it down in a never-ending quagmire of hideous public relations. Cheaper in the long term to pay a forgettable trigger man to solve the problem, right?

Ultimately, though, Grim didn’t gamble and it wasn’t worth much to conjecture about it. Better to focus on the matter at hand. The oak doors swung open, pushed outward into the corridor by a yellow-furred Demarian bailiff in a dark blue uniform. Grim edged back so that only his right eye peered through the slit window to observe. How things worked from here would depend on the actions of the target. If Piedmont left with the bulk of the crowd and had the advantage of numbers on the elevator, Grim would need to run downstairs and follow him out into the streets of Manhattan until Piedmont was alone, preferably in a location with minimal collateral witnesses in surrounding vehicles or buildings. But Grim had done some research about Jude Piedmont, whose habits suggested that he didn’t care much for attention under the best circumstances, let alone suffering through a trial like this with his reputation on the line. Grim expected that Piedmont would avoid the elevator and the main lobby, where the pilot might encounter scandal-hungry media reporters and vengeful parents angry about a verdict that favored him. It seemed much more likely to Grim that Piedmont would opt for the stairs, which would take him directly to the basement parking garage.

First out of the courtroom were the usual civilian observers – the gawkers who just came to watch without any real dog in the fight. Then came the clusters of parents, sullen and frustrated by their failed attempt to wring money out of Piedmont or the company that hired him to fly the Clara Nell. The next wave included the victorious lawyer, Gettleman, his defeated opposing counsel from the plaintiff’s table, and the holojournos with their bobbing silver orbs and those glowing red telltales. All of them made their way to the banks of waiting elevators.

Through the open doors, Grim could see Piedmont talking to Baker, captain of the Clara Nell. After they exchanged a few words, the pilot walked toward the corridor. He did not make a left toward the elevator. Instead, as predicted, he approached the stairs. Grim kept his head low, gun ready, and loped down the steps two at a time. He was on the tenth floor landing before Piedmont pushed open the door on fourteen. Grim kept out of sight on the left side of the stairwell just in case Piedmont peered down the well out of a healthy sense of paranoia.

Once Grim reached the landing of the seventh floor, he planted his feet firmly on the floor beneath the rotating blue seven. He counted Piedmont’s steps. Heard them getting louder. Saw the man’s shadow on the descent from the eighth floor. Raised the barrel of the flechette pistol, finger on the trigger. Caught the look of surprise on Piedmont’s face. Eyes wide. Terrified.

“Wait,” the target said, bringing up a hand with palm out. “Don’t,” Piedmont pleaded.

Grim did not comply. He fired a shot into the man’s abdomen and watched as the pilot slammed back against the wall and slid down, leaving crimson streaks. He was ready to fire a second burst, a kill shot to the target’s head, but he heard a voice. A woman’s voice. She said: “I didn’t know you spoke Spanish.” What the hell? Someone else in the stairwell? He looked down the well as Piedmont writhed on the landing floor, blood spilling out onto the carpet. In the corner of his eye, Grim could have sworn he spied a shower of crumpled silver foil wrappers tumbling from the ceiling again.

He couldn’t see anyone below. Couldn’t see anyone above. They might be keeping out of sight as he head, though. But what if no one was there? The creeping fear of a cancerous tumor chewing through his brain slithered back into the forefront of his mind. He might be on the verge of collapse, he feared. He couldn’t afford to linger. He holstered the gun, then took the stairs down to the fourth floor landing before stepping out into the corridor.

He walked over to the bank of elevators and pushed the UP button. Grim needed to make his way back to the roof for extraction. He looked back toward the stairwell door. It nagged at him, leaving Piedmont critically hurt. The wounds weren’t necessarily mortal. Surely, they had ravaged his innards, but organs could be cloned or replaced with synthetics and cybernetics. The authorities might never identify Grim as the shooter, but his employer would certainly withhold final payment for failing to complete the contracted service. His criminal liability could be minimized, but his professional reputation would be wrecked if Piedmont pulled through. He should go back and finish the job. Set to do just that, he turned to approach the stairwell, but then that phantom stench swept into his nostrils again. No time, he thought. It must be a tumor. The elevator pinged its arrival – PING! PING! PING! PING! – and the echoes simply drove home the point. He would have to visit an oncologist. The doors whooshed open. Grim walked into the elevator car and tapped the button marked with the number twenty. The doors slid shut. The elevator began its climb. Then it stopped. Someone must have overridden the controls. Had they seen him, after all? He couldn’t stay here. He didn’t want to get caught. He didn’t want to risk collapsing with some crazy tumor in his head. Then he found himself wondering why he was worried about cancer. That made no sense. Why had he left Piedmont alive, if seriously wounded, on the seventh floor landing? Time to get to the roof, by any means necessary. If that meant killing a troublesome security guard, so be it. As the elevator started sinking toward ground level, Grim turned his eyes up toward the emergency hatch in the ceiling…

…and then raised a three-fingered hand to shield his only good eye – the left one – against the glare of the overhead stadium lights. He heard the bellows, roars, and shouts of the crowd, mostly Demarians, filling the stands of the massive combat arena.

The man who had once been Paul Shearer died about twenty years ago, his body wrecked in a rockhopper explosion during a race around the chunks of Ungstir. Now, the scarred and disfigured remnants that held together was known as Grim. A web of lumpy scars covered half the right side of his shaved head. His right eye, impaled by part of a seat restraint buckle in the blast, was now an empty ruin covered by a round patch of black synthetic. His wounds left his face partially paralyzed, with injuries that left his lips pulled down in a permanent frown. For the past ten years, he had worked as this arena’s combatant master. He reviewed the talent, gauged their strengths and weaknesses, and then organized the nightly bouts with a focus on providing the most entertaining and exciting matches.

He stood on a platform, about thirty feet high, guarded by a dozen Demarian warriors. Sandstone steps wound around the column leading to the observation post. The vantage point provided an excellent view of the battle zones below.

Tonight, the arena offered some exceptional fight opportunities, a couple of real treats: A rare human female, Jude Piedmont, matched against the perennial favorite Zangali, Garunth Salaban, who had survived two years so far in the arena. The winner of this bout would face an even more unusual combatant: A captive female Nall warrior, Antaz of Hatch Vril.

The woman, Piedmont, was new – a late addition to the fight slate just a few hours ago, courtesy of Longsnout Darkwhisper. Unofficially, Grim understood that she had been pressed into service as a gladiator because she had been nabbed by security personnel on the Darkwhisper estate. Officially, the record would show that Piedmont signed her life on the dotted line as a thrill-seeking adventure vacationer.

The Nall, in her second week of arena combat, came into Grim’s possession by way of a Sand Mother Militia patrol. Antazvril had been the only survivor of a Clawed Fist Fleet incursion scout, sent to Demarian space to trawl subspace frequencies for useful intelligence.

Technically speaking, because Demaria was a fully vested and sworn member world of the Stellar Consortium, the planetary government was obligated to treat offworld espionage as a crime against the Consortium rather than against the local sovereign government. As such, they should have turned Antazvril over to the Vanguard for delivery to Earth so that she could answer for crimes against the Consortium. Or, more likely, she would be traded back to the Parallax in exchange for an imprisoned Consortium spy. But Imperator Beigescruff Sandwalker, ruler of Demaria and president of the Demarian Senate, had signed an executive order condemning Antazvril to the arena on the grounds that her escape pod had crashed in the dunes of the Sand Mother Desert. Had it been true, this would have put her squarely and unequivocally in Demarian local jurisdiction. However, Grim had it on fairly good authority that she had been captured by a boarding party in high orbit. Her captors launched an empty pod at the planet below.

But it wasn’t Grim’s responsibility to ensure that his combatants received due process. His job was to give the throngs of fight fans a series of bouts worth wagering on while they tanked themselves on strong ale and shrai nih – an exotic fragrant herb that Demarians enjoyed puffing from bubbling water-filled glass and metal pipes. The more exciting the fights, the more people showed up, the more credits they spent on wagers and drinks and drugs, the bigger the bonus in Grim’s account. So, it was imperative that Grim do what he could to maximize the excitement.

That’s why the turn of events in the fight below caused him such consternation. Salaban, flat on his back in the sand, and the Piedmont woman crouching over him. She had his arms pinned with her knees. Grim had anticipated an easy win for Salaban. In the short term, a Piedmont victory might mean a few happy long-shot hopefuls making huge bank at the cash-in cubes. But, through the longer view, toward the next bout: Piedmont, weakened and battered from a bout with Salaban, probably wouldn’t last five minutes against a bloodthirsty Nall in a life-or-death match. The shorter the bouts, the less time people stayed in the arena, the fewer credits they spent on wagers and drinks and drugs, the smaller the bonus in Grim’s account.

“Hold the fight!” Grim shouted, raising his arms above his head. Startled gasps erupted around the arena like tiny geysers of sound. It was virtually unheard of, stopping a fight in the middle of the action. The opponents gazed up at him. The woman’s eyes narrowed in suspicion, but she relented, rising from her crouch and moving aside so that the Zangali could return to his feet, rising to his full height of nearly eight feet. She seemed so small next to him. How had she managed to nearly best him? Astonishing, Grim thought. He had underestimated her will, her spirit, and, worst of all, her skill. She wasn’t just some space-dazed freighter jock. Slowly, for calculated dramatic effect, Grim walked down the sandstone steps toward the floor of the arena. His boots kicked up little rooster tails of orange sand as he approached one of the guards around the perimeter of the ring inhabited by Salaban and Piedmont, who now paced slowly around each other. Grim whispered to the guard, “Two cups in the ready room. One red. One green. A vial in my desk. Pour contents of vial in green cup. Fill red and green cups with water. Bring cups. Yes?” The guard bobbed his snarling snout in acknowledgement, then walked toward the tunnel leading to the combatant ready room. If Salaban couldn’t defeat this woman on his own, Grim would do what he must to help make the Zangali victorious.

“Why did you intervene?” growled Salaban, stomping toward Grim. Two Demarians with sharp-bladed pikes moved to put themselves between the imposing Zangali and the arena master, but Grim raised a slender hand to stay their approach.

Grim turned to regard the Zangali with a mutilated smile. “I’m just keeping it interesting, Garunth.” He let his gaze drift to the onlookers in the crowd. The murmurs expanded as they grew more restless. “Quick refreshment, then you can go back to breaking the woman in half. I do hope your form improves, though. Letting her get the best of you? Tsk-tsk.”

Salaban clacked his fangs together, looking from Grim to Piedmont, then back again to the arena master. “She fights with guile and ferocity,” the Zangali said. “She eclipses any combatant I have faced during my time in this arena. It is most impressive.”

“I have enduring faith in your strength and courage,” Grim said, clapping a scarred hand on Salaban’s left arm. He nodded toward Piedmont, saying, “She’s got guts, I’ll grant you that. But she’s just a freighter jock with a few lucky moves in her.” Grim could hear the boots of the guard approaching from inside the tunnel. He turned to look and see the Demarian bearing one red cup and one green cup. “Her luck is about to run out, I assure you.”

The Zangali flicked his eye membranes, swiveling his snout to look at the Demarian. He huffed through his nostrils. Salaban peered in Jude’s direction, then looked back as the guard got closer. The Demarian offered the red cup to Salaban, lukewarm water sloshing over the rim. The Zangali shook his head, then eyed the green cup in the guard’s other hand. The Demarian’s whiskers drooped and his ears twitched as he glanced at Grim for guidance.

The arena master said, “Take your assigned cup, Garunth.” His voice flat, but uncompromising. Grim didn’t want an accidental martyr on his hands. Didn’t need the scandal of a poisoned combatant. If Piedmont collapsed and died, everyone would believe it was simple exhaustion from her freakishly competent battle performance. But few if any would believe the Zangali’s sudden demise was anything less than foul play. It would take little effort for people to make the connections: Salaban was losing to the woman, Grim paused the match and ordered water for both combatants, and the big lizard took the drink meant for the human woman. That wouldn’t be good for business. Not good at all. In fact, it would get Grim fired at best. At worst? His employers would banish him to the Sand Mother Desert, to suffer the mercy of the twin suns as they pummeled him with hammers of light and heat on the Anvil Dunes. He might survive the week with the meager supplies provided. He might manage to crawl back into the city, with burnt flesh peeling off his face and arms, but this cooked monstrosity that had once been Grim would be good as dead. Better to crawl into the desert wastes to die, never heard from again, than to endure life after surviving the scorching horror of the Sand Mother. Demarians threw their young into the desert when they reached adolescence as a rite of passage. Many of them managed to survive. But Grim, formerly Paul Shearer, wasn’t a hardy desert dwelling native. He grew up in the Milwaukee suburbs on Earth, about as far from desert-dwelling as one could get.

“No,” the Zangali growled, his tone low and dangerous. He huffed through yellowed fangs. “It is not fair. It is without honor.”

Piedmont stepped closer, tilting her head as she asked, “What’s going on?” Fans watching from the stands shouted similar queries.

Grim didn’t like how this was going. He wondered if he had miscalculated. Worried what would happen next. Pondered whether a worse fate than the Sand Mother Desert might be imagined. How had the Zangali known? And why did he care at all, let alone enough to spit in the face of Grim’s authority over this arena in front of the crowd?

With one huge scaled hand, he slapped both cups from the Demarian’s hands. The cups spiraled through the air, arcs of brackish water glittering in the stadium lights. With the other hand, he lashed out and clutched Grim’s throat, squeezing as he lifted the human off the ground.

Grim felt the world going red and black as his boots danced and pistoned, the feet within them trying desperately to find purchase on the sand below, to no avail. Garunth pulled him closer, briefly, staring with beady black eyes into Grim’s red-rimmed gray eyes, and then snorted violently in Grim’s face before swinging the arena master’s body around and letting him go. Grim drew a rapid gush of breath as the world blurred past, only to have it knocked right back out of his lungs as he slammed against the arena wall and tumbled into darkness.

ANTAZVRIL

Flagship Eye of the Goddess
Command Journal – Audio Only
Ur’Soth Antaz of Hatch Vril

Entry 478 – Biometric/DNA Verified

Do you know the story of the Line of Pain?

No, not the tale our hatch elders tell of the broken husks of Consortium starships wrecked upon the shoals of our undaunted ferocity. If we are to believe them, then we must accept that the Line started just a hundred years or so ago, after our first contact with the humans.

The truth, Ilyrkithar, inspires much more awe and profound respect for our ancestors. Some vessels along the Line date back hundreds of thousands of years, to those lost eras before the Goddess Nalia brought her loving guidance to our people. Then, it is said and it is written, our people were known as the Vrillkin. Yes, as you may suspect, that is where we drew inspiration for the oldest and most revered hatch. In an epoch before OtherSpace Drives, before the Kamir and their mad Il’ri’kamm Hive Mind, we spanned the stars in magnificent war machines equipped with our own original faster-than-light technology. The Vrillkin did were beholden to none for their technological might. We drove our conquered foes before us through clouds of fire and shrapnel.

I mean no sacrilege, no heresy against our beloved goddess – for the tale does not end pleasantly for the Vrillkin. But I find much to admire about their relentless drive; their unquenchable ambition.

In that distant age, the Vrillkin came upon an enemy known as the Gucrai. These aliens mastered technology on par with the Vrillkin. They also proved to be rivals when it came to drive and ambition, as we would learn to our great horror. One of our expansionist scouts happened upon a world inhabited by Gucrai colonists. The colonists knew it as Shagucrai or, as it might be said in our tongue, “Second Gucrai.”

Excuse me, Ilyrkithar. I must interrupt the narrative. Transmission incoming. The Huth says it is important. If he is wrong, I will take the rest of his tail to complete his humiliation in the eyes of the Goddess.

Flagship Eye of the Goddess
Secure Transmission Archive – Audio and Visual
RECIPIENT: Ur’Soth Antaz of Hatch Vril
SOURCE: Majordomo Grim. Freewheeling, Tomin Kora via Subspace Nodes 24, 38, 119, and 276

Archive holovid shows split screen image of the Nall commander, Antazvril, on the left side and the spiky-haired human, Grim, on the right.

GRIM: “Apologies for the disturbance, Ur’Soth. I trust your troops found the last weapon shipment to be useful?”

ANTAZVRIL: “The rifles functioned properly. Two of the pistols failed to hold their charges. Those warriors made do with fang and claw. Is this a customer satisfaction call?”

GRIM: “No. Just a neighborly heads-up from a friend.”

ANTAZVRIL: “Elaborate. I have no time for games.”

GRIM: “Perhaps you have time for Derek Schraeder?”

ANTAZVRIL: “Yes.”
GRIM: “You will recall that Lord Fagin promised to deliver Schraeder to you in exchange for certain economic considerations.”

ANTAZVRIL: “I offered no guarantees. Only an audience with the Vox. Negotiations for interstellar trade treaties are beyond my purview.”

GRIM: “That is all we ask. Look to your Line of Pain today. The Consortium freighter Saginaw. Schraeder commands the vessel. I will transmit their destination coordinates.”

ANTAZVRIL: “Understood. Once I have him, I will make arrangements for your master with the Vox.”

GRIM: “Happy hunting.”

TRANSMISSION ENDS

The Nall Ur’Soth opened her snout in hissing anticipation as the majordomo’s image faded from view in the holodisplay.

Yes. She had time for the softskin Schraeder. Would make time, if necessary. Eleven years ago, the human led the Vanguard fighter squadron that destroyed the flagship of a Clawed Fist war fleet dispatched to conquer Sol System. Her mate, Tass of Hatch Kavir, had commanded the Slashing Arc. Holovid evidence suggested that a plasma torpedo fired from Schraeder’s fighter had penetrated the command blister atop the warship, obliterating Tasskavir and the rest of the bridge crew.

A Nall tri-foil fighter pursued, dogging the softskin, chewing the Stinger fighter apart with pulse fire, but the human pilot escaped with critical injuries. Injuries that he ultimately survived.

In the wake of the battle near Neptune, the Vox called for a cease fire and negotiated for peace. He wanted an armistice with the soft, weak things that slaughtered her mate. The monsters who had deprived them of the hatchlings they were to bear. All those glorious adventures that should have been theirs, destroyed in a burst of plasma.

The recovery crews, balmers from the Vox Nalia Church, could not find enough of Tasskavir’s remains to commit to the home star. Perhaps if they had found even a small quantity of genetic material, she could have pursued cloning opportunities. She knew of Mekke genegineers who might have enjoyed the challenge of such a task.

Alone these years since his death, Antazvril had devoted herself to service in the Clawed Fist Fleet. Now, at long last, she would have justice for her mate. It saddened her to think that it took the criminals and thugs of Tomin Kora to make this possible. Vox Kaesvril might hail from her hatch, might originate from the same noble bloodline of the Vrillkin, but he lacked the resolve of their ancestors. Too quick to seek compromise. Too unwilling to pursue victory to the last full measure. The Ur’Soth harbored few doubts that Grim would secure a lucrative trade agreement, so eager to please was the Vox.

She would never speak such treachery aloud, though. Antazvril had not survived two decades in the ranks of the Clawed Fist Fleet by openly speaking her mind around subordinates, equals, or superiors. She favored tactical and strategic risks in combat, but not in personal and political interactions. Entirely different battlefields, employing starkly contrasted weaponry. Her reward for caution and discretion: Command of the Nall flagship and, soon, the opportunity to deal personally with the human who had darkened her life and left her widowed. Perhaps she should thank Kaesvril for his relentless inaction and passivity. Would it have been any more satisfying to hear that a paid assassin had eliminated Schraeder? She thought that, most likely, she would much more prefer to see the murderous human die by her own hands, with her own eyes.

Antazvril walked down the central corridor of the Incisor-class warship toward the lift that would take her to the command bubble. A hazy mist hung in the warm air. Her toe claws click-clacked on perforated metal deckplates. Bright green vertical light strips provided illumination from the bulkheads on either side. In her mind’s eye, though, she caught a glimpse of a red cup spinning through the air with a burst of water – silver foil wrappers swirling in darkness – a stone shard aglow with ghostly blue runes. She hissed in mild distress, resting a clawed three-fingered hand on the lift control panel…

…and lifted her snout to peer in puzzlement at the lift’s floor indicator. Still on seven.

Emissary Antaz of Hatch Vril turned to her diplomatic attache, a Vollistan Light Singer named Voluanfel, who loomed beside her at a height of nearly eight feet. “Stairs,” she suggested.

“Very well,” the Light Singer replied, his luminescent aura pulsing pale green. “I suppose we could both use the exercise.”

That earned him a clacking of fangs and a silent stare with beady black eyes. What did this creature mean to imply? Had she gained weight? It seemed likely. It had been five years since she left the Clawed Fist Fleet to serve as the official Parallax ambassador to the Stellar Consortium. She spent far too much time in meeting rooms and at her desk overlooking Central Park, rather than taking advantage of the park’s many walking trails. However, the Vox had cautioned against spending too much time in public amongst the humans. Within the Consortium’s government buildings, Antazvril could expect a strong security presence to keep the xenophobes and psychopaths at bay. She would find herself exposed and vulnerable within the city proper.

No doubt, it troubled her that this made her as much a prisoner on Earth as it did an emissary. Antazvril would have loved nothing more than to wander freely through the streets of Manhattan. But the war wasn’t that far behind them, just ten years. She had heard tales of madmen in the eastern mountains of the North America territory who still harbored hatreds from the civil war of the 19th Century. Surely, bigots and bereaved survivors of fallen warriors from the much more recent Parallax War would prove exceedingly numerous by comparison. She longed for the days when she commanded a warship and plied the stars with a loyal crew, defending the Parallax frontier against invaders. However, her superiors always assured her that it was a critical posting, one of the most important for the Nall. Here, at the heart of the Stellar Consortium, she was the eyes, ears, and voice of Vox Yathkavir. Shame that it might end soon.

“I do not appreciate the insinuation, Voluanfel,” the emissary growled as they walked toward the stairwell door. She waved a hand over the sensor panel and the door, marked with a large blue number four, whooshed open.

“I meant no offense,” Voluanfel assured her, with a slight downward tilt of his head, a sign of deference to the significantly shorter Nall. “A jest, to be sure.” His aura pulsed with blue reassurance, reminding her of that glowing stone shard.

She couldn’t remember when she had seen a shard of rock shot through with glowing blue runes. Perhaps it had been in the early days after her arrival on Earth, when the Consortium diplomatic corps had hustled her around the planet on a tour of important historic sites and museums.

“Do you think they will recall us?” he asked, lacing his fingers together as they began their descent of the stairs toward the lobby.

Antazvril tasted the stale recycled air with a forked tongue. Glanced toward the monitoring holocam above the landing at the third floor. She knew better than to speak with any real specificity. She thought Voluanfel did too. Any agents paying attention to this recording would flag it just because the Light Singer raised the possibility of diplomatic recall by the Parallax. Clumsy, she thought. Irresponsible. But likely with absolute pre-meditated intent. Perhaps he was signaling a willingness to defect. Unfortunate, if true. She did not dislike Voluanfel. He had served at her side, offering wisdom and steadfast counsel these last few years. But if he sought to cross sides from the Parallax to the Consortium, especially after what had just occurred, she would gut him and let him cradle his own innards while life slowly bled away from him. She didn’t reply. Instead, she waited to see if he might show more of his intent through his words.

On the second floor landing, he clarified: “The concierge team. I may need to repeat introductions. I was hoping they would remember us, though. I wish I hadn’t forgotten the name of the restaurant. All I remember are the green plants – ferns. The ones with the fronds. But if the team remembers us, perhaps they will remember the restaurant.”

The Nall lashed her tail back and forth as the duo began to walk down the final flights of stairs toward the lobby. That would have been sad, slaughtering Voluanfel over a misunderstood word. Her command of the nuances of Terran Standard still left something to be desired, apparently. “I trust that they will provide us good advice for our evening meal, regardless of whether they specifically remember us or not,” she said.

Voluanfel waved his hand over the first floor lobby door sensor. It whooshed open. They stepped onto the ornate tile floor of the main lobby, where two humans stood near the security desk. The taller human was a curly haired man in a suit with pale skin, carrying a briefcase. The shorter, pudgier human wore a Consortium security uniform and had a tangler pistol holstered on his hip. They seemed to be arguing about something. Neither of them appeared to notice the blood-streaked man in black loping from the direction of the elevator banks, fists and feet churning air as he made for the front doors. But they could in no way ignore the roar of “STOP HIM!” from around the corner just before a thundering Zangali stomped in pursuit. The fat human guard struggled to pull the tangler pistol from its holster, yanking it free and then dropping it with a clatter on the tile floor. Flummoxed and frustrated, he turned to fix his gaze on the expensive-looking briefcase clutched in the other man’s hand. His thick fingers grappled across the suited man’s knuckles, trying to pry the briefcase loose. The man in the suit drove a knee into the guard’s crotch. The bloody man in black kept gaining ground, picking up speed, pushing himself with every ounce of energy to propel his body toward the front door, hands stretched forward. Seeing this, strangely enough, the Zangali started slowing to a leisurely walk.

Moments later, while the crotch-kicked guard writhed on the floor and the man in the suit inspected his briefcase for damage, the fleeing man in black slammed a bloody smear against the thick glass door and suddenly spilled to the tile like water from a leaky cup – a red cup – a green cup, arcing through the air, water droplets catching light. Red and blue flashing lights painted the walls and windows with their urgency.

Antazvril swiveled her snout toward Voluanfel, gazing up at the Light Singer and asked, “What is going on here?” He shrugged.

The Zangali calmly grabbed the bloody rag doll off the tile floor and lifted him so he could stare the battered human in the dazed face. He leaned close, hissing through his nostrils while he growled a gravely question: “Who are you working for?”

…but she refused to answer with anything beyond the fundamentals.

“I am Antaz of Hatch Vril, citizen of the Parallax, and I request immediate extradition to Nalhom.”

Sole survivor of the incursion scout Cestrak, captured in close proximity to Demaria, she lived only because she had failed to put up a fight. While the rest of the crew sacrificed themselves to the last fang, the last claw, Antazvril had followed protocol and sealed herself in the vessel’s intelligence core so that she could purge the databanks with a contained electromagnetic pulse blast. First, she had pulsed the data gathered during their expedition to the Demar System. Next, she destroyed all records pertaining to the crew and their initiatives and progress reports. Finally, she had spiked the main databanks, which contained navigation coordinates and other sensitive information that should never fall into the clutches of forces outside the Parallax.

She did all this while hearing the hissing shouts of her rampaging kin, leaping through the air and thrashing with brutal claws for close-in combat as their Demarian foes roared and blasted with pulse pistols, slashed with swords, or battered with cudgels. Calmly, she tapped in the retrieval and elimination sequences while heavy thuds slammed against the bulkheads surrounding the core. Her warriors had fought with heart and ferocity befitting the Children of Nalia. They had earned their rightful place in the boiling furnace of the sun that held the spirit of their goddess, even as their bodies fell in a dark place far from the home star. Silently, Antazvril lamented, for none of them, she feared, would have their remains returned to Nalhom for proper disposition.

The intruders, once her comrades were dead, shut down the environmental controls and dropped the temperature so that she slipped into hibernation mode. She thought that she had made it through at least the second step of the data security protocol before consciousness slipped away. Antazvril could only hope that she had completed enough of the third and final step to prevent severe damage to Parallax national security.

It was the risk every intelligence operative serving the Vox must face each time they ventured into hostile territory. How many Demarians had the Clawed Fist Fleet captured in the Nalia System over the years? Scenes like this repeated themselves time and again.

When she awoke next, she was planetside on Demaria, The bright light coming through the skylights suggested it was close to midday. Most likely the Sand Mother Militia base outside the capital of Alhira, along the fringes of the expansive desert. They had her in a holding cell with a single bunk, a metal sink, a simple hole in the floor for a toilet. The bunk had a thin brown blanket, a limp gray pillow stuffed with synthetic fiber that would melt into a watery puddle if pulled loose, and squeaky support springs.

The Demarian interrogator clad in blue silk tunic and dark gray trousers, with a bronze sash marked with the insignia of a Longclaw, stood outside the cell’s force field door, hands clasped behind his back as he considered the reptiloid prisoner. “Only one way you’re returning to Nalhom, scaleback,” he snarled. So, it seemed diplomacy wasn’t on the table for discussion. No thought applied toward an espionage prisoner exchange.

Antazvril tilted her head as she considered that ominous implication. “You give me few incentives to share additional information,” she criticized.

“Oh?” the Demarian replied with a chortle. His green-gray eyes glinted in the afternoon light. “What incentives would you suggest? What can I offer that will get you to speak?”

The Nall, wearing only her red-trimmed brown raiments of the Vox Nalia Church, shrugged. “Climb to the shoulders of that silly statue over your city, jump off, flap your wings, and fly back here. Then, perhaps, we can talk.”

That got a shrug from the interrogator, who said, “Keep your secrets. If you won’t spill them, you can spill your blood. It’s the arena for you.”

GRIM

Grim woke slowly, groggily. Through the double-vision blur, he could see Demarian guards grappling with the burly Zangali warrior. As the image came into focus, Grim noted one of the guards drawing a pulse pistol from a holster to aim it at Garunth Salaban’s head.

They were about to kill him. Through the ringing in Grim’s ears, he could hear the crowd cheering wildly for this outcome.

No doubt, the Zangali had a fatal head shot coming to him. Attacking the arena master, especially in public during an exhibition, was among the only capital offenses a combatant here could commit. It would be important to set an example for other would-be rebellious warriors. Giving a pass to Salaban might simply encourage other offenders. But…but…killing Salaban would mean that, by default, after going to all this trouble and nearly getting himself killed, Grim would have to watch Jude Piedmont almost certainly lose to Antaz of Hatch Vril.

“Wait!” he blurted, getting to his feet. “Don’t.” In his mind’s eye, Grim saw a man beneath a holographic number seven, hands raised, panicked face bathed in blue light. The Demarian guards looked toward him. The crowd settled down, curious to see that the arena master was still alive and to hear what he might have to say.

After several long moments, Grim spoke: “I have another idea…”

…but the Zangali guard just stared at him with glossy black eyes and asked, “Do tell.”

“I can’t tell you who I work for,” the assassin replied, dangling as limply as possible from Salaban’s huge scale-skinned paws. “I never know. That’s part of the deal.” True, as far as it went, but Grim had his suspicions about who would want Jude Piedmont dead. Not that he would share them with this overgrown luggage set-in-waiting. Or, he might share some theories, but none of them would have a basis in reality. Grim just needed time to regroup, analyze the situation, and formulate a new plan. He figured that he could snare himself at least two or three extra hours if the Zangali kept him for questioning. “But I can offer conjecture, plus data points about other contracts. If you’re looking for a promotion into the intelligence service, this could be your ticket.”

The building’s chief of security clacked his fangs together. He kept his grip on the prisoner, but called toward the other two humans in the lobby. One of them was getting back to his feet, still aching from the blow to the crotch: “Buteo. Take our guest to the basement conference room. I need to see to the victim upstairs while the emergency responders pull their act together.”

Grim tried not to marvel too much at the egregiousness of the Zangali’s incredible tactical blunder. Perhaps the fat man in the blue uniform was more daunting than he appeared? The guard, identified as Buteo, reached down with a heavy sigh and a huff to recover his fallen tangler pistol. He waddled in their direction.

“Secure him,” Salaban ordered, holding Grim out at full arm’s length.

The guard with the tangler pistol raised the barrel so it was level with Grim’s abdomen and activated a scanner that swept green light up and down the full length of the assassin’s body. Buteo squeezed the trigger, unleashing a pink spray of gum-like webbing that encased him from neck to ankle.

Well, Grim thought, so much for the incredible tactical blunder.

…and then the majordomo switched off the holovid, scowling in the violet shadows of his penthouse apartment overlooking Freewheeling.

“Something wrong?” the woman asked. He couldn’t remember her name. Dagney? Daphney? Derby? Didn’t matter. He didn’t hire them for their conversation or companionship. She was a brunette tonight, curled under the dark blue silk sheets.

“If something were wrong, do you suppose I would want to discuss it with you, Darla?” Grim asked, a chill frosting his voice.

She tugged the sheets over her breasts and rested against a pile of blue pillows. “Just asking,” the woman half-whined. “And my name’s Regina.”

“Your concern is touching,” he lied, grabbing a dark gray robe from his closet and slipping into it. He lashed the belt around his waist, tying it loosely. “Make us some drinks. I need some time alone.” Grim waved a hand over the balcony door sensor. The glass barrier slid aside, granting access to the balcony and its view of the urban sprawl beneath the dome.

He wasn’t quite sure how to reconcile the trouble brewing near the Line of Pain. Captain Salaban seemed much closer to self-destruction than Grim had believed and the majordomo felt like his hands were tied, despite the fact that he should be able to do something about it.

The Havelock had picked up the shipment of polydenum, vital for fueling Lord Fagin’s guild fleets, on schedule as demanded by the majordomo. It had been a shipment arranged by Grim. But then the Havelock‘s crew had been sidetracked by the desperate plea of John Highstreet, whose Quaquan starport was a critical staging area for Fringe operations. His daughter Leandra, who crewed aboard the Saginaw, had apparently run into trouble with the Nall at the Line of Pain. Trouble Grim had arranged so that he could rid himself of the problematic Derek Schraeder. Highstreet had enlisted the Havelock to perform a search and rescue sweep.

So, the shipment Grim had organized might be lost because of the crisis he had schemed. Even worse, Salaban might succeed in thwarting the Nall, thus jeopardizing the delicate trade negotiations that Lord Fagin wanted to go forward with the Parallax in the coming weeks. But, in that event, the Fringe might still at least have its polydenum delivery from Quaquan and a happy John Highstreet, reunited with his treacherous daughter.

At this point, regardless, the majordomo could do nothing but let it play out and start planning for contingencies just in case everything went totally wrong.

SALABAN

Salaban snarled, staring at the human arena master while the Demarians flanking him clutched his thick arms and another held the sharp foot-long point of a pike against the pebbled flesh of his chest.

He had been able to smell the poison in the green cup before Grim had come within ten feet of them. Recognized the stench of tzatzal root, native to the chill bogs of the icier regions of Demaria’s northern hemisphere. Salaban wanted no part in such treachery, but he was reluctant to expose Grim. He wanted to strike a delicate balance. Honor demanded that he protect the woman and ensure a fair fight, but it also demanded that he show some deference to Grim for providing him a decent living as a voluntary arena combatant.

So, the Zangali hadn’t thrown Grim with full force. If he had, the arena master wouldn’t be rising to walk again.

Before joining the professional warriors in the Demarian arena, Salaban had been best known for his longstanding champion standing in the Interstellar Throw Bar League. Throw Bar, a popular Zangali pastime, originated in the cavern cities of Mars about one hundred and twenty years before Garunth Salaban was born. Specifically, it got its start in the Crimson Creche tavern as a distance-tossing competition. Competitors took turns hurling items – glasses, lamps, chairs, tables, fellow patrons – as far as they could. Salaban knew how to throw and break a soft human’s fragile spine. His league nickname, the marquee pseudonym for which he was known, was Crunch. In his day, he had crippled or killed at least sixteen opponents by shattering their backs or necks. But he also knew how to throttle down on the toss enough to ensure non-fatal injuries.

Regardless of how easy he had gone on Grim, Salaban knew full well that an attack – even one that the arena master survived – would be enough to warrant his on-the-spot execution. His continued existence past these next few precious seconds would depend largely on Grim’s predilection for mercy and understanding. Of course, Grim was known for neither.

As a result, it came as a huge surprise when Grim stayed the Demarian from impaling him with the pike and instead announced that he had a different idea for dealing with Salaban.

“I cannot allow Garunth Salaban’s violent attack to go unanswered,” Grim said, starting his ascent up the sandstone staircase that wound up toward the top of his observation column. His voice carried to the arena crowd courtesy of the mic chip under his right ear. “But a simple execution is entirely too unsporting, and our visitors to the arena deserve a much better show for their money? Do you not agree?”

The crowd roared its assertion that, yes, indeed, it would prefer a conclusion more interesting than a pike in the chest.

He rounded the middle of the stairs and paused to look down at Salaban and Piedmont. Grim pointed toward the combatants on the sandy floor. “Our schedule initially called for the winner of this bout to face the Nall, Antaz of Hatch Vril. Fairly standard approach, yes? But I’m an unconventional fellow.” He lowered his hand, then looked toward the guard closest to the combatant waiting area. “Salaban can face Piedmont and the Nall, simultaneously. Three-for-all free-for-all!”

Hooting and caterwauling filled the air around the Zangali as the Demarian guards released his arms and stepped away. Garunth swiveled his snout so he could gaze up at the crowd on the east side of the arena. He grunted and then looked back up toward Grim as the arena master completed his ascent to the top of the platform. Clever, he thought. Salaban had heard of these exotic matches, tossed into the mix from time to time to keep the arena experience fresh and interesting to the jaded veterans. The Zangali tilted his head left, then right, before cracking his knuckles and looking over at the human female. “Have you ever fought a Nall in close combat before?” Salaban asked.

Piedmont shook her head. “No. I’ve never shoved my face down a garbage disposal before turning it on, either. I sure didn’t want to end my day this way.”

Salaban chortled. “Take heart, human. Chances are good that we won’t live to regret it tomorrow.” He looked toward the tunnel, where the guard had vanished into the shadows to retrieve the third combatant.

…finally reached the landing where the badly wounded human lay in a pool of blood, already growing tacky to the touch.

He looked ashen, pale, clutching his abdomen in a futile attempt to contain the bleeding from the injuries that had soaked his expensive shredded dress shirt with crimson. He was conscious, although his eyes were heavy lidded and nearly closed. His head leaned to the left. He seemed about ready to topple sideways.

Salaban knelt beside the assassin’s target and rested a hand on his shoulder, bracing him up. “Help is coming. The shooter is in our custody. Be strong.”

The human’s eyes opened a little wider as he tried to orient himself. Some bloody drool trickled from the right side of his mouth. He glanced up at Salaban. Knit his brow in confusion. “I thought I told you to clean this up two days ago.”

At first, the Zangali just clacked his fangs in confusion. He had only ever seen Jude Piedmont in passing during the pilot’s visits to the courthouse building. His scalp rill twitched upward as it occurred to Garunth that the human might be joking. Gallows humor, the Earthers called it. So, Salaban decided to counter with a quip of his own: “Bugging me doesn’t fix this faster.”

…growled as he stomped down the landing ramp of the Havelock to find the Timonae technician, Fexx Joris, waiting with his slender fingers laced before himself.

“He’s late,” Salaban complained. “I have a shipment bound for Tomin Kora by way of this damned search and rescue mission for Mr. Highstreet. I do not have an abundance of time to waste on this Piedmont fellow.” He knew that Highstreet had planned to press Jude Piedmont into service for this effort, but it would have been totally understandable to Salaban to expect that a person hearing that they were supposed to venture out to the Line of Pain to rescue a girl they had been dating for just a few months might weigh the benefits against the risks and opt for the safety of single life.

The Timonae bowed his head in agreement. “Of course not. However, I have reason to believe he is not delayed by his own choice.” He unclipped the PDA from his hip and showed a picture of a gray-haired man in a gray suit and dark purple boots. “That’s Abernathy. Runs a pub in town. Sometimes visits the spaceport to…acquire…people who need to meet with loan sharks before they can bolt offworld. Mostly, he answers to an Odarite named Zrt’kfr. I would be absolutely unsurprised if Jude was deep in debt to that bug.”

We should leave him, Salaban thought. Proceed with the mission. Let the human sort out his own troubles. Didn’t Garunth and his crew have their own concerns to deal with? Broken ship parts? A grumpy pirate king expecting delivery of a crucial cargo? Now, a rich Qua’s damsel daughter in distress? He didn’t need to add rescuing a degenerate gambler from an Odarite mobster to the to-do list.

But something compelled him to against all common practical sense. He had no idea what it was. Sympathy? His first suspicion had been cowardice. He could understand fear in the face of trespassing against the Nall. Upon hearing that Piedmont was snared by a thug working for a loan shark, his emotions had shifted to disdain. Yet, despite what amounted to a melange of pity and disgust, an unidentifiable internal compulsion urged the Zangali to relent.

He growled, shaking his snout left and right, then huffed through his nostrils and crossed his arms. “Take me to this tavern.”

PIEDMONT

Piedmont crossed one leg over the other as she sat across the brown stone table from the Sandwalker patriarch, his tan and sable coat preened exquisitely, the stump of his right arm capped by an iron sleeve studded with amber and blue gemstones. He wore a green velvet vest over a black long-sleeve tunic, with brown trousers. The shorn-tail underclasser standing against the wall behind Stumppaw Sandwalker held the old Demarian’s black velvet cape in outstretched arms.

“Are you sure about this?” Stumppaw asked. He reiterated the risks: tight security, hazardous defenses, difficult passage in and out. “I can send at least one Demarian with you. A guide. Lookout, perhaps.”

Piedmont shook her head, looking at a sand painting high on the wall that depicted one of the Sandwalker ancestors locked in mortal combat against a writhing sand eel. “If I wanted backup, I would bring someone I know and trust from my crew. This isn’t for them. It’s just for me. I appreciate the offer…” A strange voice lilted through her mind – “Your concern is touching.” Silver foil fluttered through the air and glinted in the darkness. She frowned, shifting her gaze toward Stumppaw once more. “I’ll do this alone.”

Whiskers flexing and ears twitching, Sandwalker tilted his head and grunted. “I would feel more confident about your chances of success if someone went along to share operational responsibility.”

She couldn’t help but smile at that. Condescending bastard, she thought. He didn’t think the little human girl can match up against the big tough cats on the mountaintop with all their knives and guns and pretty killing machines. Piedmont uncrossed her legs, leaning forward to rest an elbow on the table. “Fine,” she said. “You send someone with me, I double my fee. Twice the crew means twice the risk. If I have to save my furry shadow’s ass from certain death, you’re going to pay for it.”

The Demarian noble clacked his fangs in frustration, chittering angrily. “Stubborn human,” he replied. At last, though, he simply shrugged and said, “Very well. Alone. But understand this, Jude Piedmont: Should you fail and die, I will do nothing to avenge you. Should you fail and survive, I will disavow any claims you make, should you attempt to link yourself to me or my house in any fashion.”

Piedmont chuckled. “You’ve got nothing to worry about, Sandwalker. I’ll succeed and I’ll survive. I always do.”

And just how had that worked out in the end? Well, she was now guaranteed to get a one hundred percent share of absolutely no payoff before Darkwhisper turned her over to Grim for what promised to be a brief career as an Alhiran arena combatant. It seemed that Sandwalker’s condescending attitude hadn’t been entirely unwarranted. Piedmont truly had been out of her depth. Yes, she had managed to get into the estate, which by itself was no mean feat. But success required extracting herself from the place without capture. She felt like she had no choice but to admit that she would have fared better with a lookout, with someone to help even the odds in a fight.

Before riding in the trunk of a hoverlimo to the arena in the heart of the city, she sat in a chair at a simple gray stone table, hands and feet bound with gummy pink tangler strands that pinched deep when she tried to worry at them with her wrists and ankles. The guards who had captured her, one of them now carrying his left arm in a sling thanks to a kick from her left leg, flanked the door leading out of the interrogation chamber. The black and silver-furred Darkwhisper snarled, arms crossed over his chest. “Who hired you?” he demanded.

“I work alone,” she replied with a shrug. “Less complicated, but obviously a little more inconvenient.” Piedmont held up her bound hands with a smirk.

“You think this is amusing?” the noble asked, whiskers bristling outward.

Piedmont thought about that. She couldn’t say it was amusing, no. Not to her, at least. This misadventure was liable to get her killed, which she actually considered the more acceptable alternative to suffering some sort of crippling or disfiguring injuries in the arena. Finally, she said, “I think the universe finds it amusing. God. Brakir. Whatever you want to call it. Something in the pattern of the stars and the alignment of events is cackling her ass off right now. That much, I guarantee.”

“Do you pray?” Darkwhisper inquired, brow arching. His tone seemed dubious.

“Rarely,” she admitted. The last time she had set foot in a church was her sister Penny’s wedding six years ago in Queen City on Sivad in St. Diana’s Cathedral. Piedmont had nearly fallen asleep where she stood with the other bridesmaids, all wearing their ridiculous red and green dresses that more than one had complained (to each other but never the bride) made them all look like Christmas trees. Her father had to stifle a laugh when he spied her nodding off. Adelaide, of course, had furrowed her brow and frowned her obvious disapproval.

The aggrieved Demarian clasped his paws behind his back and then gave a broad smile that fairly gleamed with sharp fangs. “Feel free to reacquaint yourself with the process on your way to the arena. Who knows? Perhaps the universe will listen to your pleas.”

The arena? She barked a curt laugh, remembering Petyr – Paul Deeson – asking, “Staying long enough to take in the fights tonight?” And now, it seemed that indeed she would do just that. She wondered if he would be in the stands, still cross about her dismissive attitude that morning. Would he put money on her? Or would he cheer for her opponents? Would he even recognize her? Either way, it just seemed to confirm her suspicions about the smartass force behind the warp and weave of the universe.

“Figures,” Piedmont muttered.

She didn’t pray much in the dark confines of the trunk of the sleek black Kail Motors limo as it whirred down the snaking roads toward the city of Alhira. It was a late model, possibly even a top-of-the-line 2655 – she hadn’t recalled seeing the twisting silver spiral ornaments on the hood of the 2654 model.

The afternoon suns, the orange and red orbs of Demar Major and Minor, descended behind the blunt gray and brown peaks of the Stubtooth Mountains as she was led from the side gate of Darkwhisper’s estate and shoved into the stuffy box at the rear of the car. It wasn’t quite spacious enough for her to stretch out fully, so her legs bent back at the knees so her feet could rest against the passenger side trunk interior. Her hands, bound behind her back, rested on the hump that must contain the spare whirly disc.

Begging the powers of the universe for a break after getting herself into this jam seemed just a little too childish to Piedmont. After all, wasn’t this a classic case of sleeping in the bed that she had made? Sandwalker had warned her. Stubbornly, she had ignored him. Now, she would pay the price. So, really, no point in bothering any divine entities about bailing her out of this hellacious mess. Instead, her thoughts turned to the crew of the Havelock. If anybody needed some help and guidance right now, it was her friends aboard the freighter. How long would Marlan wait before coordinating a search effort? It wouldn’t have been the first time their captain had gone missing for a day or more without explanation.

“I used to have this cat,” the doc would say, “when I was growing up on Biscayne Bay. We called him Zeb. Short for Zebediah. He didn’t have much use for the house. He’d come in to eat, maybe to wallow on Mom’s lap for as long as she would sit still for it, but then he’d hit the trail. We kept a couple of clanking brass cowbells on a string on the back porch. If Zeb was gone too long – two, three days – we’d give those bells a good ringing. Most times, he showed up within an hour or so. One time, he didn’t. We never saw Zeb again after that.”

How long would Marlan ring those bells for her, Piedmont wondered? She hoped that they didn’t stay too long on Demaria. She would ask someone at the arena to get word to the crew, let them know her fate so that the will she had filed on Earth a few years ago could be acted upon. She wanted the crew aboard the Havelock to know she was at peace and give them the opportunity to move on without her.

But would it surprise Piedmont if, having failed to survive the arena, she ended up fed to sand eels amid the dunes of the Sand Mother Desert, without so much as a condolence letter to the Havelock? No word to Penny or Stephen? Not a peep to Adelaide on her Sivadian island?

No, it wouldn’t surprise her at all.

So, she didn’t pray much. But Jude Piedmont at least prayed a little. Even if she didn’t survive, she shouldn’t be lost and forgotten. Let at least that much work out in my favor, she thought.

It did surprise Jude when she got the upper hand against the Zangali. At that moment, pinning him beneath her knees and resting on his chest, she allowed herself to – ever so briefly – conceive of the possibility that the universe didn’t intend to turn her into eel chum. Maybe it would give her a chance to walk out of the arena under her own power, head held high, so that she could rejoin the crew of the Havelock and put this unfortunate episode behind her. She wanted to repay that kindness by giving the Zangali the opportunity to end the bout amicably. Piedmont didn’t think to-the-death really had to apply in these fights. She had known several combatants who were regulars, whether they won or lost. But Darkwhisper’s call for Salaban to finish her off dimmed that glimmer of hope. Salaban’s insistence that she must die quashed it entirely.

And then Grim had intervened, declaring a cease fire in hostilities so that…what? They could drink some water? Really? Keeping hydrated was a big concern in the Demarian arena? That was news to her. She had her suspicions about the drinks even before Salaban clearly did. Had the Zangali not slapped the cups out of the arena master’s hands, she would have refused the beverage. Because, it had become quite obvious to Jude Piedmont, the universe was a big fat cat that liked to bat people around like mice before killing them.

Or, given Salaban’s treatment of Grim, maybe the universe was more like a huge cranky Zangali playing a cosmic version of Throw Bar with its inhabitants.

Now, instead of trying to kill each other, they waited while the crowd bellowed its undeniable approval of the arena master’s decision to unleash a Nall into the combat mix. While Salaban stared at the tunnel to watch the guard swagger into the shadows in search of the sinuous reptiloid, Piedmont scanned the crowd with her eyes. She wasn’t sure she would recognize Petyr – Paul Deeson – if she saw him. The bar had been smoky, the hotel room had been dark, and she hadn’t looked at him much that morning. Even if she recognized him, she thought, he might not have a clue who she was – although her image (as well as her vital statistics) was broadcast large on the holographic arrays along with Salaban and Antazvril’s.

But she did find him, rather easily, and he had quite obviously recognized her. He was passionately debating something with Darkwhisper, pointing toward her every once in a while. Piedmont had a feeling she knew exactly what was going on and…she seethed about it. Her jaw clenched, instinctively. Her eyes narrowed.

Soon enough, Darkwhisper walked to the edge of his balcony and signaled a nearby guard to approach. The noble gave the guard an instruction. The guard bobbed his snout in acknowledgement. He walked toward the staircase that wound its way up to Grim’s observation platform. Reached the top about the time the other guard returned from the mouth of the combatant tunnel with the shackled Nall, her snout clamped in silver rings. The guard at the top of the platform spoke quietly to Grim before returning to the staircase to make his way back down to floor level. Antaz of Hatch Vril was on the perimeter of their battlefield before Grim raised his arms and proclaimed: “A last minute reprieve is in store for competitor Jude Piedmont, it appears.” The crowd’s rumbling dulled to a murmur. Grim aimed an index finger toward “Petyr” in the balcony with Darkwhisper and said, “A friend has negotiated your safe departure from the arena.”

Like hell, she thought. Just like she had feared. Her one-night stand had recognized her and had somehow worked out an arrangement, no doubt a lucrative payoff to the Demarian noble, to get her away from the fight. Sure, the universe seemed to be telling her, I’ll get you out of this mess. I’ll send you back to your crew. All it’s going to cost is your total humiliation and indebtedness to another human being. Not just any human being, either, but the one you treated like a chewed up dog toy this morning. Now how do you feel? “I’m no damsel in distress,” Piedmont shouted, looking at Paul Deeson and scowling. “I don’t need a rescue!”

The Zangali swiveled his snout to stare in disbelief at the human. “You would choose almost certain death to a Nall over the brief wounding of pride?”

“I don’t want to die,” she muttered. In truth, she wanted very much to live, although she had resigned herself to the likelihood that she probably wouldn’t survive the day. Frankly, Piedmont had been amazed that Darkwhisper hadn’t just shot her on sight for intruding on his estate. “But I don’t want to owe my life to anybody, either. To me, that *is* worse than dying.”

Salaban uttered a sigh like gravel rolling down concrete. “No, human, that is *living*. Like it or not. In the end, we owe each other our lives, if we live properly.”

Piedmont rolled her eyes. It sounded like something that Penny would quote from those relationship counseling holovids that her sister loved so much. “I hope you didn’t pay full price for the meal that cookie came with.” She looked up toward the platform Grim was standing upon and started marching toward it. Her boots kicked up divots of sand. She spared one glimpse for the Nall, which observed her with beady black eyes but remained shackled at the moment. Too bad, she thought. She wanted something to take her mind of what Deeson had done in the name of chivalry and what the alien Salaban had tried to eloquently state about humanity. Piedmont was intent on climbing the full height and giving him a piece of her mind all the way. If possible, she would punctuate her diatribe by shoving him off the column backward after kicking him in the nuts and dropping him to his knees. “Listen here, you one-eyed, scar-faced, droopy-lipped monkey humper, if you try to shove me out of this match, I’ll…”

She didn’t see the punch coming right away. Certainly, she should have expected it. She noticed the movement in the corner of her eye just a moment too late to try to dodge the attack. It was almost like a hovercar with a corrugated hood zooming toward her periphery. When Piedmont started turning to get a line on what was going on, it just put her in a position to take the full brunt of the blow. Salaban’s heavy left fist slammed into the right side of Piedmont’s face and sent her tumbling into darkness on the other side of a mouthful of sand.

Jude Piedmont didn’t know what time it was when she finally regained consciousness, mostly because she was aboard theHavelock, inside the windowless sickbay and stretched out on the medical bed.

She heard the familiar ping-ping of the heart monitor, which was picking up signals transmitted from the wireless electrodes affixed to her chest and abdomen. The right side of her face felt tingly and numb, which she expected meant that she had been adequately medicated. Without the painkillers, Piedmont knew, it must feel like she had smashed her face against a rock the size of her head.

“Well, well, well, looks like Zeb’s finally coming around again,” the doctor quipped as she leaned in to stare down at Piedmont. Marlan had a round face framed by brown hair. She wore green-striped blue surgical scrubs.

Jude wanted to ask, “How did I get here?” But what came out, thanks to the numbing agent, was, “Owehgaheer?” She thought she heard a voice like Salaban’s answer – “Urmeebee. Curpleshaks.” – and caught a glimpse of shimmering silver foil wrappers bobbing through pale light in the darkness. She could imagine that Paul Deeson had arranged for her to be delivered to the Havelock. Maybe he had brought her himself. What if he was aboard? She thought that unlikely. If he had bought her freedom and tagged along, Piedmont fully expected that he would be sitting in sickbay, waiting to lord it over her.

“You need to rest,” Marlan Ranix replied, smirking. She placed a palm on the captain’s right shoulder and said, “Long day. Eventful. We’re all looking forward to hearing the whole story. But right now, I’m dosing you with another sedative. We’ll talk in the morning.”

Piedmont opened her mouth to argue, but what came out made even less sense than before. Warmth swept over her, from foot to scalp, a gauzy hug. Her battered cheek felt like it might crinkle, made of foil – dancing silver wrappers in the dimly lit chamber. The medical bay faded to dreamless, untroubled shadows.

Consciousness returned, preceded by her awareness of the gentle thrumming of the Havelock‘s hull and bulkheads under the influence of the freighter’s OtherSpace Drive. No longer planetside, then. Probably well clear of Demaria, zooming headlong through the knife edge of time and space, between all realities and none simultaneously. Dread crept into her thoughts as she pondered likely destinations. Sivad and mother, perhaps? In that case, Piedmont mused, it might be best to order an about face for the Havelock so that she could take her chances in the Alhiran arena once more. Slowly, she sat up. Her face ached, but it felt more like she had just been slapped rather than nearly shattered by a blow from a big lizard fist. Felt like an improvement. She would take what she could get, under the circumstances.

The hatch granting access to sickbay grated open, pushed by the doctor’s small pale hands. As she entered, she unclipped the PDA from her belt and looked toward Piedmont with a smile. “The bruises should fade within a day or two, but the cheek fracture is completely repaired. So are your four broken ribs. That new nanosurgery suite we got paid off.”

“We’re on the move,” Piedmont replied, changing the subject from her injuries to reflect her desire for information to start filling in the blanks in her mind. In the grand scheme of things, her wounds from the arena were minor compared to the developments that she really felt compelled to know about. While she waited for an answer, she rubbed absently at her bruised cheek with the palm of her hand.

Marlan nodded. She took the captain’s wrist in hand, started monitoring her pulse. “Under the circumstances, Diss thought it best to get away from Demaria before someone changed their minds about letting you go free.”

Diss – a silly nickname for a mechanoid Phyrrian pilot whose true identification code was DS-3633. Effectively, first officer of theHavelock since the death of David Ransom Porter in that incident near Ungstir with the Rock Hounds. If Diss wasn’t careful, Piedmont might start accusing him of growing sentimental and building attachments.

“Don’t look too freaked out about it,” the doctor said, apparently in response to the grimace on the captain’s face. She tilted her head, moving Piedmont’s face with three fingers against the captain’s chin to get a better lit view of the right cheek. “I’m pretty sure it was less about protecting you and more him acting on internal self-defense programming. We’re heading toward Phyrria so he can check in with the Overmind. Maybe he thought you wouldn’t mind?”

Piedmont chuckled. She leaned back in the bed, resting against a couple of pillows and cradling the back of her head in the palms of her hands. “Maybe he’s going to beg to be reprogrammed and reassigned to a new ship.” Diss had been part of the crew for about four years, but he had always tended to keep himself at a distance, as if trying to maintain a buffer of objectivity. All the while, he continued gathering data for analysis. She wondered what he must have made of her Demarian misadventure. How would that be reported to the Overmind? Perhaps it would be something as simple as: “Dear Overmind, the sentient organic entity known as Jude Piedmont demonstrates reckless and irresponsible behavior that would tend to suggest an overwhelming and unhealthy propensity for irrational risk-taking.” Soon, it would upload that report to the big city brain hunkered down in the toxic landscape of Task Matrix Central on Phyrria. How would the Overmind respond to the report? Maybe something along the lines of: “Faulty Phyrrians who manifest such brash programming errors are subject to full wipe and restore.” Could they take Piedmont back to the factory for a full wipe and restore?

Well, the corrosive rain on Phyrria certainly sounded more appealing than a picnic on Nod Island with Adelaide. Sandwiches, lemonade, with a heaping helping of maternal angst and guilt-tripping. Give me skin-stripping downpours any day of the week, she thought.

“The fight?” the captain asked. At the very least, Piedmont thought she should know how the combat played out between Salaban and Antazvril.

Marlan furrowed her brow. “I think you should get more rest.” Then she shrugged and sighed. “But I know you won’t heed that advice until you get your answers. I queued a holovid.” The doctor pointed toward the holoviewer control interface on the bedside table. “Watch if you want. I’ll be back in a half hour so you can pee in a cup. I need to confirm there’s no internal bleeding.”

The holographic recording started after Piedmont’s memory left off: Two Demarians hauling her unconscious form up from where she lay face down in the sand, flopping the captain onto her back, and then carrying her away from view.

That left Salaban, oozing blood from wounds to his snout and above his left eye, to face the much tinier Nall, Antazvril. He looked tired. Why wouldn’t he be? An afternoon spent battling two Demarians, a Vollistan Light Singer, and a human woman with an apparent death wish. Now he stood alone against a walking, talking threshing machine.

It didn’t take long.

Compared to Salaban, the Nall was refreshed and energized. And when she caught the scent of his blood on her forked tongue, well, everyone knew about the Nall and their blood frenzies.

He tried to put up a good fight, but he was big and clunky, with moves like a hovertanker. She moved like shadows and quicksilver, letting his size and momentum work against him while her claws flashed across his abdomen, chest, and arms. More slurries of blood flowed as the Zangali roared in pain and fury. Antazvril’s frenzy grew more overwhelming. She was like a blur, sweeping back and forth, dodging Salaban’s futile swings and severing a major leg artery when he tried to kick her.

He dropped to his knees, blood spilling in splattered pools on the sand. She drove a taloned foot up to impale his snout from below, driving his head upward and making him look something like a blood-soaked rhinoceros. Then the Nall dragged her claws across Garunth Salaban’s throat.

She let him drop dead on the sand.

Piedmont switched off the image. If it hadn’t been for Paul Deeson and Garunth Salaban, she had little doubt that her corpse would’ve sprawled beside the Zangali just a few minutes later. But what if she could’ve made a difference? What if staying in the fight might have given Salaban a window of opportunity to strike Antazvril down?

Well, what if it had? If she had stuck around, even in the unlikely event that they prevailed against the Nall, they would still have to fight each other to victory. Salaban would have killed her or she would have killed him. He had saved them from having to make that choice.

She didn’t like to see spiritual debts like this piling up. She buried her face in her hands and sobbed.

July 12, 1857

Kill Devil Hills Convalescent Hospital, North Carolina

I have never spoken my middle name to anyone outside my most immediate family.

Once, I asked Mother what had possessed her to choose it. Perhaps most important, I wished to know why she had chosen it for me. But she deflected, urging me to raise that subject with Father, if I dared.

I dared, just one time. I had the ill fortune to present my query during the afternoon of Christmas Eve in 1834, at the height of his daily inebriation. For my trouble, I was rewarded not with knowledge, but with the calloused back of his left hand across my face. “Ask again, it’s the belt for you,” he warned. I did not ask again. But, apparently, I did give him an angry look – so he assured me, and this served to justify the supreme thrashing I received with the belt, after all.

I will be honest: The significance of the name did not register with me until I was about nine years of age. In Sunday school at the First Baptist Church of Oak Bog, on a particularly humid afternoon beneath a mossy live oak, we read the stories of our Lord Jesus Christ’s apostles. We learned about the last supper and the betrayal of Christ by Judas Iscariot, who, it should be noted, deserved to go to bed without bread pudding for his naughtiness. That was the assertion of my friend Toppy Forrest. I found it difficult to position myself against such a sentiment. We were young, then. Good and evil seemed so clear to us at the time.

But now, dear Jessup and Clayton, I suppose I am older and wiser. At 33, in my waning hours, I am the same age our Lord reached before his crucifixion. I will not claim to understand all the Mysteries of the Almighty, which are Legion and often beyond mortal comprehension.

I was born Judas Iscariot Piedmont. I am no longer ashamed. For I came to understand, in the fullness of time, that we all serve a purpose in God’s plan and we all work His will. Even those who take blood money and turncoat someone they love and worship are responding to a higher calling.

This may make no sense to you now. Perhaps in a few years, you will understand. I will pray that it is so. When that day comes, I hope you may find it in your loving hearts to forgive my wrongs. I shall await your embrace in the glorious Kingdom of Heaven.

Love,

Father

Nearly 800 years later, in a midtown New York City hospital just minutes from the Outer Banks, Jude Piedmont read those ancient words on a holographic display, scrawled handwriting on yellowed parchment rendered in a cloud of blue-white light.

Jude Piedmont, about ten generations removed from the nefarious Iscariot, kept the letter stored in the data module of his well-used Anyware Cirrus PDA. He was fascinated by the man who was thought to be one of the first serial killers on record in the Carolinas. Most of his letters, including the note in which he confessed to the murders of eight nurses and barmaids in cities ranging from Raleigh to Charlotte, were destroyed in a Pittsboro courthouse fire in the early 21st Century. But the deathbed letter to his sons, written as he wasted away from a cancer that now could have been cured with about six doses of medicine during the course of a month, had been in a special collection at a Kill Devil Hills library.

From time to time, Jude would read the letter in the hopes of finding some clue that would help him fathom the depths of the monstrous mind that could speak so eloquently of religious matters, in a loving tone to his children, while simultaneously harboring a vicious brutality that sought release through the slaughter of innocent women. Iscariot Piedmont had traveled the state, working as a freelance farrier, and wormed his way into the confidence of his victims before slicing their throats and leaving their bodies in shallow forest graves.

So far, no matter how often his eyes scanned the words, Jude had been unable to reconcile the mind driving the pen with the grim legend of the killer who wielded it. He suspected that the answer would elude him all the way to the grave. Luckily, it seemed he would still have some time before that final day might come.

He had a private room with local police guarding the door, just in case someone tried to infiltrate St. Catherine’s Medical Center to finish what the captured assassin started. No window in this room, either. He wouldn’t fall prey to rocket-propelled grenades fired from neighboring rooftops, nor would someone with a jetpack zoom up to open fire with a plasma rifle. Only investigators and approved friends and relatives would be granted entry.

It struck Piedmont as somewhat curious that they were giving him all this protection while he recovered from his wounds, but it seemed unlikely that it would persist once he walked out those hospital doors. The message seemed to be: We don’t want you dying on our watch, but out there, you’re on your own.

Oddly enough, this didn’t bother him all that much. He suspected that this well-publicized abortion of an assassination attempt might actually serve to insulate him after his release. At the very least, Piedmont thought that it would give him time to distance himself from the event and for whoever wanted him dead to – dare to dream – forget about him.

The door whooshed open. His attorney, Gettleman, stepped into the room with a wolfish grin on his face. “You’re looking lively, Mr. Piedmont. Glad to see it. I thought you might check out on us last night.”

Piedmont shrugged. “I’ve felt better, but I’m counting my blessings. I just want to get back to work.”

The lawyer clucked his tongue. “Forget that,” he said. “You wanted to start your own shipping enterprise, right? That takes capital. Someone just went to a great deal of trouble to try to kill you. Probably someone powerful, with incredibly deep pockets. Now seems like an excellent time to try to squeeze a fat settlement out of somebody.”

“No,” Piedmont said, flatly, shaking his head.

Gettleman frowned. “No? Are you kidding me?”

“No,” the pilot repeated. He fixed his gaze on the lawyer, somber and resolute. “I want to do my own thing, but I want to build it myself.”

“That could take years,” Gettleman said. He very nearly whined. “Decades. Be realistic, Jude.”

Piedmont poured himself a glass of water from the pitcher on the table beside his bed. He knew better than to think the lawyer was urging this greedy maneuver out of some desire to see him succeed in the interstellar freight hauling business. Plain and simple, Gettleman knew he would get a percentage of that “fat settlement.” He took a sip from the glass. Sighed. Then he looked at the lawyer and said, “I really need to get some rest.”

“So you’ll think about it?” Gettleman pressed, the barest hint of a smile seeping onto his face.

No, Piedmont thought. He had enough work ahead trying to track down the careless hacker who had botched the Clara Nell’s computer refit. He had promised to stick with Captain Baker at least long enough to bring Vampire to justice. “No,” he verified aloud. “Goodbye, Mr. Gettleman. The next time I hear from you, it had better be about my recertification.”

The lawyer deepened his frown and furrowed his brow, but recognized that he had no choice but to relent for now. He shook Piedmont’s hand before departing the room.

Once Gettleman was gone, Jude tapped a pad on the bedside table, activating the holovid’s news and entertainment node. He swiped fingers across the displayed images, moving from one frequency to the next.

On the Consortium Broadcast Network, the Castori anchor showed the latest images from the T’lask VII flashpoint – a Nall polydenum production facility world in Fringe space that, it turned out, used captured Consortium citizens as forced labor. The Vanguard had swept in to liberate the captives and occupy the planet, securing a new supply of the precious and volatile energy source that powered OtherSpace Drives (among other things). Warriors from the Clawed Fist Fleet had struck back ferociously, but so far had been unable to wrest the planet back from the Consortium. So, the Parallax government seemed to be rattling sabers, threatening to launch Coreseeker missiles at T’lask VII as a way of saying “If we can’t have it, no one can.” Heightened tensions and hostilities between the Consortium and Parallax would certainly make life interesting in Fringe space for a while, Piedmont thought.

FIP. FIP. FIP. He stopped on a channel showing a vid, produced documentary-style, that appeared to be the story of a massive alien invasion of the known worlds of the Orion Arm. The villains appeared to be gorilla-like aliens with huge warships, which easily crushed the allied forces of the Consortium, Fringe, and Parallax. Piedmont couldn’t decide which was less believable: an easy battle for such an invasion force or the prospect of cooperation between the three disparate regions of the Orion Arm.

FIP. FIP. A big-mouthed Demarian standing on a procenium stage, wailing as if someone was jumping up and down on his feet with cleats on their steel-toed boots. Oh, wait. No – just one of their god-awful operas. FIP. FIP. FIP. Dear god in heaven, FIP.

FIP. A nature special about the metal-chewing rodents, known as buhnehs, that sometimes swarmed up from the mining tunnels deep below Valsho Peak on Antimone and rampaged through seaside villages, wreaking havoc on buildings, machinery, and furniture. The narrator spoke of a particular incident in 2617 when the middle-sized hamlet of Yanz tumbled into the sea because the buhnehs – also known to natives as “buhns” – gnawed their way through the steel girders that held up the platforms supporting the oceanside village.

FIP. FIP. FIP. A game show called Throw Bar, hosted by the jocular Thaddeus Neidermeyer, in which contestants from around the Orion Arm were challenged to throw unusual objects, sometimes including their competitors, as far as they could. Tonight, a Castori teacher hurled a black leather boot belonging to a United States Civil War re-enactor about twenty feet. A Timonae bank teller tossed a copy of the Throw Bar home game about forty-five feet. The defending champion, a Demarian data entry agent, threw the Castori teacher forty-eight feet to win the day. Unfortunately, the Castori left the competition with a shattered back, a sprained wrist, and a broken leg.

FIP. A talk show, featuring a G’ahnli finance expert named Soogorbma, who talked about the importance of building a retirement savings for those sunset years, because 110 was the new 90. He sang the praises of Consortium military investment bonds, which never seemed to go out of style. Given the current climate between Earth and Nalhom over T’lask VII, it actually made a lot of sense.

FIP. FIP. FIP. FIP. Rockhopper races, pre-recorded, broadcast from the asteroid fields of Ungstir. The smart money was on DelMarenno, but Piedmont knew you couldn’t count Jest’liana Warren out of the running on her worst days. Besides, he had met both. DelMarenno was an unrepentant drunk. Jest was good people.

Again, the door whooshed open. Piedmont waved his palm over a sensor, freezing the playback so that the holovid showed Jest’s hopper coming out of an arcing sweep from behind one of the rock chunks near Ungstir Three.

He recognized the new visitor as the Zangali who had come to his rescue in the stairwell. Detective Prague had told Piedmont his name. “Am I disturbing you?” the security guard asked as the door whooshed shut behind him. He nodded his snout toward the holovid. “I can come back another time.”

“No, it’s great to see you, Mr. Salaban,” Piedmont replied, extending a hand from the bed toward his visitor.

Despite having such a huge paw, the Zangali managed a gentle squeeze of the offered hand. “I will not take long. The doctor informed me that you were conscious. I wished to pay my respects. Thank you for including me on the list.”

Piedmont scratched the right side of his face, rough with stubble. He hadn’t shaved since before court a day earlier. He wondered aloud, “How long have you been waiting out there for me to wake up?”

Salaban grunted. “I was given the day off,” he said. “I could think of no better way to spend it than to ensure that I saw you through to this point.”

“That’s kind of you,” Piedmont replied. “Seems like I’m going to live to fly another day. Considering you saved my life, it made perfect sense to put you on that list. If *you* wanted me dead, I wouldn’t be here right now.” He let his arms fall to his sides on the bed. “Speaking of which: do we know anything new about the shooter? The police didn’t have much to say.”

The Zangali shook his head. “Nothing on file in the public records I checked. He’s a ghost.”

“Connected,” Piedmont mused, frowning. That would fit with Gettleman’s assumption that the assassin worked for powerful people. “That’s not good.”

“No,” Salaban agreed.

Piedmont imagined one of two scenarios would play out for the assassin, and neither of the likely outcomes involved facing justice in a court of law. He strongly suspected that the shooter, known only as Grim, would either end up dead in his cell (probably looking like a suicide) or he would disappear from custody during transit from the city jail to the courthouse. Grim’s fate relied on whether his employers considered him too much of a liability to live or too talented to die. Given that the assassin seemed to be doing a fantastic job of keeping his mouth shut about his bosses, they might want to keep him around for more wet work operations down the line. But any loose end could unravel for them too. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. Better safe than sorry, they might think.

Of course, that could just as easily apply to the target that got away, right? Perhaps he was fooling himself, thinking that his high profile would make them reluctant to strike again. Maybe they’d just be more circumspect next time. Instead of trying to kill him in a secure courthouse building, perhaps they would arrange for him to die in an apartment fire. Plasma explosion? Electrocution? Slip and fall? Heart attack? Why limit their vengeance just to him? Couldn’t they just as easily sabotage the Clara Nell, killing Captain Baker and the rest of the crew along with Piedmont, sending a message to anyone else who tried to thwart their will next time?

“I may not sleep again for a while,” Piedmont said.

…time to wake up, sunshine,” the man in the gray suit said, peering down at Jude through the open door of the hovercar’s trunk. “Z’s waiting to see you inside.”

After Jude tripped and sprawled on the corridor in the spaceport, Abernathy had clutched him by the nape of the neck like a mother cat snaring a kitten, hauled him upright, and shoved him along toward a door leading to the parking garage.

Now, after the drive into town, they had arrived outside the Yellow Adobe Tavern – a favorite hangout for Zrt’kfr and other less savory types on Quaquan for shady business dealings. “I can’t stay,” Jude insisted weakly. “Leandra needs my help.”

“She can wait,” Abernathy replied, reaching in to grab Jude’s jumpsuit with both hands and yanking him out of the trunk. “What’s the big rush, anyway?”

“Nall,” Jude answered. “The Nall got her.” He still wasn’t sure how much help he would be for her. If Captain Salaban was smart, he would already have launched the Havelock to fly toward the Line of Pain. Leandra wouldn’t have time to wait for a pre-rescue rescue operation. The more time Salaban wasted worrying about Jude, the longer Leandra would remain in the clutches of those savage scalebacks, and who knew what might happen to her if the lizards got their blood frenzy going?

The thug with neatly combed silver hair chuckled. “She’s got it easy compared to you. C’mon, Romeo. Let’s go see him.”

They found Zrt’kfr crouched in a booth near the back of the pub, two of his four arms resting casually on the carved wooden table as he slurped sugary liquid from a tall glass using the proboscis that slid from between his mandibles. He was an Odarite, currently serving as a sector captain in the Odarite Merchants’ Guild, which was the insectoid equivalent of an interstellar mafia. Zrt’kfr managed gambling accounts on Quaquan for the OMG. Abernathy was his hireling, a middle-aged brute who had probably spent most of his life glowering and grunting when he wasn’t pumping iron or beating Demarian cubs with a shovel.

Abernathy shoved Jude into the seat across from Zrt’kfr and then slid in next to his fellow human to make sure Piedmont couldn’t slither away.

Claws clicking, the Odarite shoved the glass of Odari Red aside and fixed his glittering black compound eyes on Jude. “So tired of asking for my money. It gets old, you know?” He tilted his round head, the dark carapace catching the grimy gleam of the mostly burnt out overhead plasma lights – dying crimson suns in clear glass cylinders.

“I’ve got other bills to pay,” Jude said. “I’ve told you that before. I pay you when I can!”

“Do not think that was our arrangement,” Zrt’kfr said. “Think we agreed: you pay on time, every time. You pay late, every time. How is this equitable?”

Great question, Piedmont thought. Although an even better question would be: when was life ever equitable? If the universe wanted to play fair, he wouldn’t have sunk so far as he had. His girlfriend wouldn’t be cheating on him with a war hero. He wouldn’t be in debt to the bug mob. He wouldn’t be committed to participating in a foolhardy mission to the Line of Pain. But he knew better than to say any of these things to Zrt’kfr. He would have no patience for it. Instead, Jude told him, “Money’s been tight. I’m sorry.”

The Odarite click-clacked his mandibles, swiveling his gaze toward smirking Abernathy before returning his attention to Jude. “Sorrow will not suffice. Tears are not credits. Reputation requires action. Punitive action.”

“Wait,” Jude said, leaning forward with his hands flat on the table. “I just need a little more time. I’m supposed to head out to the Line of Pain today. Maybe I can pick something up for you? Lots of valuable salvage, right?”

“Salvage? Valuable? Yes,” Zrt’kfr agreed. “However, you will understand if I lack confidence in your ability to secure same. If you attempt, very well, but message must be sent.” His compound eyes turned to fix on Abernathy again. The thug clutched Jude’s right hand with his left and pulled out a pocket plasma torch, which he fired up and brought close to the flesh of the captive appendage.

All three at the table spun their heads toward a nearby wall after a glass mug shattered against the saffron-hued plaster. Glinting glass splinters hurtled outward, some narrowly missing Piedmont’s cheek.

They turned their attention toward the source of the hurled mug. It appeared to be a grumpy-looking Zangali or perhaps his companion, a Timonae. Both looked familiar to Piedmont. One was Fexx Joris, the technician who worked with him at the spaceport. The other had to be Captain Salaban from the Havelock.

Abernathy didn’t know them and, judging by the scowl on his face, he didn’t appreciate them throwing breakable objects around his boss. He switched off the plasma torch, tucked it back into his pocket, and then he pushed his way out of the booth and strode over to them, saying, “Do that again, it’s a good way to get yourself hurt.”

The bartender, a broad-shouldered Qua with dark hair to his shoulders, raised a hand, palm out, to Abernathy as he said in a mellow tone: “Do yourself a favor, sir, and return to your table. They’re playing Throw Bar. Interruption is unwise.”

“That’s right,” Fexx said. He turned toward Salaban and said, “You challenged me to throw the mug. I threw it. My turn to issue the challenge.”

“I will hear it,” the Zangali replied. He had not yet bothered to look at Abernathy.

Zrt’kfr’s thug didn’t like the bartender’s attitude. He didn’t like being ignored. So he braced his hands on his hips and shouted: “I told you to stop! You owe my employer an apology!”

The Timonae pointed directly at Abernathy’s chest. A silver eyebrow arched. “Him,” Fexx said. “Throw him.”

Abernathy started to say “Like hell,” but before the second syllable came out, he was hefted bodily above Salaban’s head. His right hand scrambled behind his back, trying for the pulse pistol tucked into his pants. He pulled the gun free, but before he could secure his grip, Abernathy was sailing through the air. The pistol fell on the floor, spinning slowly until it bumped against the metal support cylinder of a barstool.

Piedmont watched, hardly believing what he was seeing, as the thug’s body began its descent toward Zrt’kfr. In those precious seconds, Jude decided to take advantage of the clever distraction, despite wanting to stick around to enjoy the sight of Abernathy slamming into the Odarite mobster. He slid out of the booth and ran toward Salaban and Fexx, who was in the midst of claiming Abernathy’s pistol for himself.

“They’re going to kill me,” Piedmont muttered as they ran for the door.

Fexx squeezed off a warning shot at the booth while Zrt’kfr tried to untangle himself from the raging Abernathy.

Salaban shoved through the door, leading the way to Fexx’s Wicklein Tramper hovercar. The gull-wing doors were already open. Fexx jumped into the driver’s seat. Salaban took the front passenger seat, calmly declaring “Shotgun” as he pulled a blunt-barreled plasma rifle off the floorboard and aimed it at the tavern’s front door while Piedmont clambered into the back seat.

As Abernathy stormed out of the Yellow Adobe, Salaban fired a blast of reddish-yellow plasma at the ground just before the front door, scorching the toes of the thug’s purple boots. Abernathy pointed at Piedmont as Fexx backed the hovercar from its space, shouting, “You’re dead! DEAD!”

Salaban pumped the plasma cylinder one more time, then fired a shot into Abernathy’s hovercar engine, tearing through the metal hull and reducing the motor to slag. He brought a big hand down on the door controls, bringing the gull-wings down with a whir as Fexx sped onto the street.

“I wouldn’t worry too much about that loudmouth killing you,” the Zangali said as he set the plasma blaster back on the floor of the car. Then he swiveled his snout so he could look over his shoulder at Piedmont. “Chances are we won’t be coming back from the Line of Pain.”

Jude sat at a table in the mess hall aboard the Havelock, sipping fruit-flavored water from a black and gray canister. It tasted a little like watermelon. The table, topped with charcoal gray plastic, sat atop a metal cylinder that was bolted to the deckplate. His chair, like a hollowed egg with a blue shell and a yellow cushion, was also affixed to the floor to protect against unnecessary flying objects during particularly brutal turbulence. He looked through a rounded square porthole sunk into the gunmetal gray bulkhead, watching the blue-white swirls of OtherSpace zooming past.

“Hungry?” asked Captain Salaban, who approached with a metal tray loaded with some kind of well-cooked and heavily seasoned eight-legged fowl. “It’s a nuvrun. Cooked it using my great-great-great grandfather’s recipe.” He set the tray on the table in front of Jude.

The scent of the bird, roasted in exotic Grimlahdi spices that smelled like a cross between lemon pepper and cinnamon, certainly appealed to Jude. He suddenly realized that he hadn’t eaten at all since arriving at work at the spaceport. On one hand, he felt a pang of guilt for thinking of food when his girlfiend probably faced a horrible fate in the clutches of the Nall. On the other, even doomed murderers on death row get a last meal, he thought. We’re going to the Line of Pain. Why die on an empty stomach?

“So, you save me from an Odarite mobster and now you cook for me,” Piedmont said, leaning back in his chair. “People are going to talk.”

The Zangali chortled. “Let them talk. I saved you because your boss insisted that you participate in this fool’s errand. I cooked this bird because I am hungry. I do not intend to eat it all. So, I will share it with you.”

Piedmont smirked. “Fair enough.” He reached toward the tray and started tearing a leg off the carcass. “How long until we reach the Line?” he asked as Salaban settled into a chair across from him.

“Three hours,” the captain said, grabbing a hunk of meat for himself off the nuvrun. “Plenty of time to digest a home-cooked meal.” For a few moments, Piedmont watched the Zangali gnawing meat from the leg bone severed from the nuvrun. Something sat wrong about it, somehow. He wasn’t exactly sure what the problem was, but Salaban must have noticed the lines furrowing on Piedmont’s forehead in confusion. “Ah,” the captain said after swallowing. He set the bone on the tray and wiped his hands. “The meat eating puzzles you.”

Jude laughed, shaking his head. “Is that what it was? Christ, I couldn’t figure it out. Yeah, I guess that’s it. I had always heard that Zangali were vegetarians.” He had also heard rumors that some vegetables and herbs native to Earth, such as carrots and catnip, had a narcotic effect and enjoyed some popularity on the Grimlahdi black market, but opted against bringing that up with the captain.

Salaban bobbed his snout. “My people are, for the most part, herbivorous. But I’ve found over the years that I have a taste for cooked meat, especially when it’s a challenge to cook properly. Nuvrun is particularly tricky. Leave it on the heat too long, it becomes leathery and dry. Not long enough, it turns out waxy and rubbery. The nuances of preparation are critical.”

Taking a bite for himself, Jude savored the spicy-sweet taste of the seasonings. “It’s good,” he offered, still chewing. “Reminds me a little of duck, actually.”

“I have heard of these ducks, I think,” Salaban replied. “Toxic venom. Plague carriers. Wiped out millions of humans on Earth in your Middle Age, when the graying wives were drowned in the rivers and their men took sleek new vehicles as mates.”

Jude narrowed his eyes and picked his drink canister off the table, raising it in salute to the captain. “I am not sure what they’re teaching little Zangali in school about Earth, but it sounds so much more entertaining than the real thing.”

The captain gnashed his fangs in amusement, but then rested his hands on the table on either side of the tray and admitted, “I have been curious about you, Mr. Piedmont. Since we met in the spaceport, to be honest, but even more so when Highstreet urged us to include you in this misadventure. You do not seem to be an unintelligent man, yet it is also terribly apparent that you have made some challenging choices with your life.”

Piedmont shrugged. Hard to deny, wasn’t it? Salaban had just had to risk life and limb to wrest him free of Zrt’kfr’s clutches. Now he was putting everything on the Line – quite literally – for Piedmont’s cheating girlfriend. “Yeah,” he agreed. “I’ve made some pretty dumb wagers with other people’s money. Stupid risks that bite me on the ass.” He frowned. “Every once in a while, I get this feeling that I’m about to break even, maybe get ahead. Like when I met Leandra. And then something happens to knock me back two steps.” Like seeing Leandra locking lips with Captain War Hero on the Saginaw?

Salaban nodded in agreement. “Yes, I understand. I can do little to alleviate your debt problem. It is difficult enough to keep theHavelock running a meager profit, especially with Ochochin trying his occasional ‘time-saving’ measures that end up breaking vital parts.”

Scratching the side of his cheek, Piedmont said, “I would never ask you for that kind of help, Captain Salaban. It’s my mess to clean up.”

The Zangali raised a clawed hand, his snout swiveling back and forth. “Nor did I suggest that you would,” Salaban said. He lowered the hand. “I simply offered that as preamble to what little I might be able to do to assist. The most I can really do is offer a parable from the Zanitrivex, the holy book of our greatest martyr. In this parable, Zan speaks of a short-fanged youth from the worst blood creches in Akril, the capital city of Grimlahd. This Zangali, his name is Unruht Yubarnal, finds himself associating with people who commit violent crimes against the weak, the elderly, and the infirm. They are terrible people, doing horrible things, and they sicken Unruht so much that he takes what money he has saved and moves to a different blood creche. Here, he lives for another two years. Once again, however, he finds himself among violent gang members, but these prey primarily on rival gangs. Unruht cannot stomach the murderous rampages. He gathers his meager savings for another move. He relocates to the other side of the planet from Akril, to the city of Pluchur, where he almost immediately falls into affiliation with confidence tricksters and robbers who take advantage of unwitting tourists. Offended once more, Unruht decides that he cannot live among any on the surface of Grimlahd, so he leaves the planet to dwell in an orbital colony city called Shichir. Here, as before, he spent much of his time in shady places inhabited by dark souls and made them his friends. They would not accept Unruht, would not give him their honor mark, until he made his first kill. They put a wrench in his hand. He desperately wanted their approval, although the cost sickened him as he contemplated it. For years, he had run from creche to creche, city to city, even beyond the world he had known, hoping to escape the violence perpetrated by his associates. How could he outrun an act of violence by his own hand? Where could he go to escape the memory of his own atrocity?”

“Sounds like a no-win situation,” Piedmont replied, frowning. Stories like this always seemed so frustrating to him. Calculated, manipulative, on the sort of narrative rails that lead to a cut and dry moral meant to sound enlightening, but more often proved irritatingly cryptic.

“Indeed,” the Zangali replied. “In the end, Unruht struck himself in the skull with the wrench. He chose suicide.” He took another bite of nuvrun, chewed a few times, and then asked, “What do you make of his choice?”

The human considered. He gulped more liquid from his canister. “Well, like I said, it’s a no-win situation. If Unruht kills someone, that’s too high a price for acceptance in his book. If he doesn’t kill someone, they’re not accepting him, and he seems pretty eager for people to like him, even if they’re the wrong kind of people.”

“So you agree with his choice?” Salaban asked. “Suicide?” He gave a shrug with his formidable shoulders. “I suppose you might. But Zan goes on to teach us through this parable that although we own the curse and gift of free will, each choice that we make in our lives opens new paths for us to follow. Unruht followed a path of inaction and chaos, condemned to repeat the same mistakes until he could no longer escape the consequences of his indifference. It was only a no-win situation, as you say, because Unruht refused to make the choices necessary to find his way onto a better path. Running from mistake to mistake without altering circumstances is both unproductive and insane. He changed his surroundings, but did nothing to fundamentally change himself. Did nothing to try to make his world a better place. Avoidance is a choice, passive as it might be. Indifference is a choice. Inaction is a choice. Like all other choices in our lives, they have consequences.”

Piedmont thought about the parable. He wasn’t sure he agreed with Salaban’s interpretation of it. What was Unruht supposed to do? Stand up to the bloodthirsty killers in his hometown? What would that accomplish besides getting himself killed? “It’s a good story,” he said, tearing off another nuvrun leg. “But having no good choices doesn’t seem like a path for hope and promise and optimism. A guy can stick his neck out for any cause he sees fit, but what good is it if he always gets his head chopped off for his trouble?”

“We have no way of knowing with certainty that other choices are doomed to disastrous ends,” Salaban replied. “Can we predict such ends with probability? Perhaps. But if an individual’s path leads to martyrdom, such a fate is not unwelcome among the Zangali. We do not fear death, but we do fear death without meaning. We fear the empty death. We do not fear life, but we do fear life without purpose. We fear the passive life.” His fangs clacked together in a rough approximation of a smile, which was rather unsettling for Piedmont. It was like watching a huge komodo dragon grin. “It is that philosophy that motivated me to accept John Highstreet’s challenge at the Line of Pain. It drove me to rescue you from Zrt’kfr. It persuaded me to risk ruining a perfectly good nuvrun.” Another shrug. “I could have died choking on gristle from the bird. I might have been stabbed or shot on Quaquan during the effort to get you out of that tavern. I may still face my demise when we encounter the Nall at the Line. Each of these choices could lead to disaster, but they will definitely lead to new paths with a potential for glory, redemption, and the conquest of all fears.”

“So, even choices that suck are worth choosing?” Piedmont pondered. “I don’t know about that, Captain. I guess I see what you’re trying to say. I appreciate it. But it’s not like I’ve gone through my life without making choices. I haven’t avoided choosing. I’ve very obviously made some dumbass mistakes, based on the consequences of those choices.”

“A fair point,” the Zangali conceded. “But one consistent mistake you seem to make is that which Unruht made, by failing to comprehend that new scenery does not always equate to a fresh start. Moving from Earth to Quaquan, for example. I suppose that did an excellent job of distancing you from the repercussions of the Clara Nell incident, but it did nothing to change your behavior, such as your tendency to associate with criminals.”

“Who pays *your* bills?” Piedmont asked with a smirk. The Havelock didn’t have a Consortium brand emblazoned on the hull, which meant an independent operator. Usually, independents didn’t work the Quaquan route without the blessing of the Pirate King. Cargo haulers who operated without protection of a government flag ran the risk of becoming prey for the marauders operating out of Tomin Kora.

Salaban gave another huffing chortle through his nostrils. “I work for Lord Fagin, of course, but I am no pirate. At worst, I am a smuggler, when circumstances demand it. I prefer to haul legitimate cargo, but I will not deny that I am sometimes compelled to accept shadier jobs. I have a crew to feed and a ship to fix. Those bills usually aren’t paid by good deeds and happy thoughts. However, you are deflecting instead of addressing my point.”

“Am I?” Jude knew full well that he was. He had never been blind to the fact that his choices since the Clara Nell incident had tended toward the problematic, even self-destructive. He couldn’t remember the last time he had done something that would truly have been in his own best interests, as opposed to something that made him feel a little better right now or helped him to forget everything that was going wrong.

“Yes,” Salaban confirmed. “Your best course of action, it seems to me, would be to stop hiding from your past on Quaquan. Quit punishing yourself by living under the thumb of someone who doesn’t appreciate your talents. Stop burdening yourself with crippling debts in a misguided effort to live beyond your means. Get steady work, redeeming work, and earn your way back to the black. Zan tells us that obstacles and challenges are placed before us so that we might try to overcome them. It is understood that we may be bested by those mountains we seek to climb, but our noblest efforts are rewarded in the memories of our descendants, who will speak of us with pride and reverence.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t have to worry too much about descendants, do I?” Piedmont frowned, lacing his fingers together on the table. “I can’t do much procreating when my woman’s imprisoned by the Nall. Or worse.” Or sleeping with her captain, he thought. Mustn’t forget that tasty tidbit. Besides which, who was he fooling? John Highstreet had made it clear that Leandra wouldn’t stay with Jude for the long term. They wouldn’t be making pretty little Piedmont babies, even if Leandra wasn’t a two-timing slut, if the spaceport superintendent had anything to say about it. In fact, Piedmont felt rather certain that if they managed to save Schraeder and Leandra, Highstreet would instead give his blessing to the Saginaw‘s captain to take Leandra’s hand in marriage. Sure, he sounded irritated about Schraeder landing her in this mess, but he might see more promise in a bond between his daughter and a Consortium war hero. And wouldn’t that mean that, once again, he was acting against his own best interests?

The Zangali got to his feet and picked up the tray. “The leftovers will be placed in the keeper. Help yourself to them after we’re done at the Line of Pain. Meanwhile, I recommend that you retire to the crew quarters for a nap. I want you as rested as possible when we reach our destination.”

Jude Piedmont couldn’t sleep.

Every time he closed his eyes and tried, he envisioned the Havelock‘s arrival at the Line to find a dozen huge Nall warships and swarming fighters looming just ahead of the scattered hulks of wrecked vessels. Or he saw Leandra, throat cut and gushing slurries of crimson, dropping to the deck beside the corpse of Captain Schraeder.

In this quiet time while the ship still plied its way through OtherSpace, it occurred to Jude that although he had nothing to leave behind in a final will and testament, he should probably prepare a final message to his father, Bronson, and his stepmother, Ruth.

He took out his PDA and called up the last message his father sent. It had been 15 October 2654, originating from their home node in south Florida.

Jude,

It’s been two months since I’ve heard from you. I’m worried sick. So is Ruth.

We respect your choice to make a fresh start on Quaquan. It’s a beautiful world, with many opportunities for an enterprising young man. But when you disappear like this, this radio silence of yours, it usually means one of two things: 1) Something’s gone wrong and you’re afraid to tell us or 2) you’re dead.

If it’s the second thing, we’re going to miss you terribly, but I guess we can forgive not hearing from you.

If it’s the first, please get over yourself and contact us at once. We are your parents. We love you. Don’t push us away when you need us most.

Come home for Thanksgiving. We’ll have pie.

Love,

Dad

No more Thanksgivings. No more Christmases. No more Auld Lang Syne. He wouldn’t even make it to his thirty-second birthday in March.

He tapped a virtual button on the display, bringing up a fresh message input. What could he say? How could he sum up everything in his heart and on his mind in a blurb of text? He wasn’t much of a writer, anyway. A second tap erased the message input. A right sweep and tap activated the holorecorder, creating a mirror image of Jude’s face as he sat on the bunk.

He forced a smile and said, “Dad, Ruth. Hi. By the time you get this message, I’ll probably be…you know…the second thing. I wasn’t dead when I got your message last month. It was totally the first thing. No matter where I go, it seems like I keep falling into the same traps and bad habits. Changing where you are doesn’t change who you are, I guess. That’s too bad. Moving around isn’t cheap and it’s always hard starting over, you know? But I want you to know, I didn’t die in some dark alley or sleazy hotel room with empty bottles on the bedside table. I’m with good people, doing a good thing. We’re going to rescue some people from the Nall at the Line of Pain. Well. We’re going to try. You’ll get this message if it doesn’t work out the way we hope. A new friend told me that his people fear death without meaning. The empty death. How much more meaningful can it get than to lay down your life to save someone else? That’s pretty good, I think. Not as great as your pie, though, Ruth. I really would’ve liked some pie.”

Jude switched off the recorder. Then he tucked the PDA under the pillow on the bunk. He wondered if the salvagers would find it within an intact crew chamber or if the device would be adrift amidst wreckage of the obliterated Havelock. Would they find his corpse nearby? Would there be nothing left to find? Or would he be in some forced labor camp on a Nall prison world?

He figured he would know soon enough.

The Havelock dropped out of OtherSpace near the Line of Pain. The ship’s sensors started a concert of pinging as they detected thousands of starship hulls stretching along the border of Parallax space.

Jude stood next to Salaban’s command chair when the Zangali brought up an image on the main viewscreen. The Saginaw, adrift and seemingly inert, leaking a sparkling trail of orange-yellow plasma from the engineering section. Reactor damage. Nearby, looming about five times larger than the freighter, was a ship that looked like a severed hand with three long claws, with a trio of bulbous thruster nozzles emerging from the wrist.

“Nall warship,” Jude ventured.

The captain clacked his fangs together. “Not just any Nall warship. Flagship of their most prominent fleet. That’s the Eye of the Goddess.”

Ochochin, sitting in his chair at the navigation console, reported that the Eye of the Goddess had directed its active scanners to sweep the Havelock.

“Checking to see how hard we might bite,” Jude quipped. He looked toward Salaban. “How terrified do you think they are right now? Scale of one to ten?”

On the screen, they could see the Nall flagship firing thrusters and arcing toward them from the Saginaw.

“Oh,” Jude said, frowning. “*That* terrified.”

The sensors chimed again as a new contact dropped out of OtherSpace behind the Havelock. Ochochin made a panicked chittery noise and then looked toward Salaban. “Starship identified as the Ixltax, Odari registry.”

Piedmont knew that ship, of course. The Zangali huffed as he turned his gaze toward Jude, who just nodded and said, “Zrt’kfr.” The Odarite mobster’s ship was a smaller passenger transport with a souped-up drive. Jude had made the mistake of telling Zrt’kfr that he was headed to the Line. He and Abernathy must have persuaded John Highstreet to give more precise coordinates.

So, here they were, stuck between a Nall warship loaded with angry reptiloids that already wrecked the Saginaw and an Odarite Merchants Guild vessel carrying a money-hungry mobster and at least one vengeful thug. Who knew oblivion came in a variety pack? – “Of course I couldn’t be this popular when I was a kid, right?” – silver foil wrappers danced through the shadows – For I came to understand, in the fullness of time, that we all serve a purpose in God’s plan and we all work His will.

That’s when the Nall warship opened fire, a green bolt of energy lancing through vacuum toward the Havelock. Piedmont could only hope that the freighter’s shields might hold against the attack, but he feared that it wouldn’t, so he squeezed his eyes shut and waited for impact.

It didn’t come.

“They shot the Ixltax!” Ochochin shouted, perhaps a little too gleefully. He brought up the image of Zrt’kfr’s ship, a sleek oblong disc now crippled and leaking plasma just like the Saginaw.

“I’m sure we’re next,” Jude replied. The Nall commander must have quickly determined that the Havelock posed little or no threat, perhaps acting as a distraction for the ambushing Ixltax. Or maybe it was something as simple as a coin flip.

But they weren’t next. Instead, the Castori reported that the Eye of the Goddess had signaled a request to open communications with the Havelock.

“Visual, on screen,” Salaban growled. Moments later, they had blurry image on the main viewer that slowly came into focus. Sparks exploded in the foreground, with a haze of bluish-white smoke in the middle distance. Damage in the command center aboard theEye of the Goddess, as if it had been the site of an impressive firefight. The camera appeared to be canted at about a twenty degree angle, aimed at a console where a Nall lay slumped on the controls, armor splintered and scorched where it had been sundered by plasma blasts. A slender human hand shoved the dead reptiloid out of his seat.

Leandra Highstreet sat in the chair and braced the camera at level with her right hand. She brushed bangs out of her eyes with her left hand. Her brow knit and she asked, “What are you doing, Jude? It’s dangerous out here!”

Piedmont blinked in disbelief. “I…” He struggled. All the way here, he had been worried that his girlfriend had been captured, possibly tortured, maybe killed by the Nall. Now, here she was, bigger than life and fresh from commandeering a Nall flagship. “Er…” He looked at Salaban, who could offer little more than a sympathetic shrug. His eyes returned to the screen. “Your father thought you might need some help.”

“God, he’s such an idiot,” Leandra groused. “Look, Jude, you and your friends need to go home. The Consortium Intelligence Service will arrive soon to get a look inside their prize here. You don’t want to be around when they drop in.”

He could appreciate that concern, but he had a pretty long list of questions that he wanted to ask. She worked security for theSaginaw. That’s what he had always thought. He would never have imagined that she was some kind of Consortium superspy. Jude felt like he deserved some answers, under the circumstances. “We need to talk about this later,” he said.

“No, we don’t,” she replied, frowning. “I’m sorry you had to find out like this, but it’s just not -” Leandra paused to look to her left. She sighed, set down the camera so that it was back at its clumsy angle. He could see her hand drawing a plasma pistol from a hip holster. She moved out of sight of the camera. He heard the thump of her boots on the deckplates. The hiss-whine of a plasma blast came with a brief flash of light in the corner of the image. Moments later, she was back, holstering the gun and picking up the camera to stare into it again. “Anyway, we’re done, Jude. Don’t get me wrong. It was fun while it lasted. But the CIS has big plans for me. I’m moving on. You should too.”

The captain leaned forward in his chair now, grunting. “Easy enough for you to say, Leandra Highstreet. We are answerable to your father. What do we tell him?”

From behind Leandra, a man spoke: “No witnesses. You know the rules, darling. Nix both ships.” Must be Captain Heartthrob, Jude thought.

Her frown deepened, but she shrugged. “I gave you a chance, guys. Chatty always gets dumb people dead.”

Well, Piedmont thought, at least that saves us the trouble of disappointing John Highstreet, right? He grimaced and clenched his hands into fists. “Listen. We came out here, at great risk, intending to rescue you. Now you’re talking about blowing us up for our trouble? That’s…that’s not fair! None of this is fair! We deserve better than this.” He looked toward Salaban and said, “*This* is an empty death. It’s pointless! We die at the hands of the very people we came to save? What does Zan say about that?”

Salaban tilted his snout as he considered the question. Eventually, he answered: “Zan teaches that the universe is rich with irony. If it were edible, none would go hungry.” He motioned for Ochochin to cut the feed. The screen returned to the image of the Eye of the Goddess against the backdrop of scattered wreckage from centuries of dead ships along the Line of Pain. He told the pilot, “Make a run for the Line. Take us directly under the Goddess. We’ll be out of her gun arc for about ten seconds. Get us over the border into Parallax space.” Ochochin bobbed his snout in agreement and brought the thrusters toward full speed. Piedmont opened his mouth to protest, but Salaban shook his head. The Zangali then activated the intercom to engineering. “Ercrax, I am about to make you very angry. On the upside, if this works, we will still be alive in ten minutes for you to yell at me. Can you bypass the faster-than-light drive safeties for a hot jump?”

The Mekke replied over the comm: “It will only take a few seconds. I suppose it would do no good to mention the myriad hazards involved in this action?” Piedmont knew the hazards. OtherSpace Drives usually required ten to fifteen minutes to cool down after significant jumps beyond the speed of light. They came with built-in governance devices that enforced the safety period. This feature had been added to the drives in 2610, after the crew of a Consortium starship called the Dorado made a panicked hot jump to escape pirates near the Tomin Nebula. When they dropped out of OtherSpace on the outskirts of Sol System, a Vanguard patrol encountered them. No one responded to hails. A recovery crew docked and explored the ship. They discovered the crew, mummified husks at their stations. The ship’s computers seemed to think that two centuries had passed during the two hour jump.

“All are acceptable risks compared to the alternative if we do nothing,” the Zangali said calmly.

The Eye of the Goddess opened fire, targeting the Ixltax again. Three bolts tore into the already damaged hull of the Odarite ship, which erupted like a shiny metal pinata. Instead of candy, though, a mist of spent oxygen and venting plasma from the reactor, and a cloud of tumbling debris and bodies spilled out of the shattered vessel.

For some reason, Piedmont felt absolutely no relief that his superspy girlfriend and her war hero partner in crime had just blown Zrt’kfr and Abernathy apart. It might have had something to do with the fact that the warship was now adjusting weapons to aim at the Havelock just as the freighter disappeared under the trio of hull talons. Ochochin kept close to the contour of the Goddess, staying just as close to the other ship as he dared until he leveled off to pass beneath the “wrist” module with the thruster assembly. The Nall ship fired attitude jets, rotating to achieve an optimal firing arc on the fleeing freighter. “Is this going to work?” he asked the captain.

Salaban gnashed his fangs. “Part of me hopes not, to be honest. Spending life on the run from the Odarite Merchants Guild *and* the Consortium Intelligence Service? We are unlikely to find many safe harbors after this.”

The Havelock had just passed between a pair of ancient star trawlers – of a design and manufacture that Piedmont had never seen before – and into Parallax territory when Ochochin announced, “We’re in their arc. Assigning maximum power to aft shields.” After tapping a sequence on the console, the Castori added, “We will be at OtherSpace velocity in about fifteen seconds.”

Piedmont glanced toward the hatchway leading back to engineering as something tickled his memory. A tidbit from their first meeting on Quaquan, after Salaban and Ochochin had emerged from the ship in the hangar bay. “That part you needed,” he began, turning to look at Salaban once more. That vital piece designed to keep a link between the thruster nozzles and the Havelock. “Did Aberdeen Pell have it?”

“She had to special ord…” Salaban started to speak, but was cut off by a wailing structural alert siren and a brief shudder.

Ochochin winced as he hunkered down over the navigation console to peer at the readouts. Jude didn’t feel like hanging idly by Salaban’s chair, so he moved forward to watch over the pilot’s shoulder. He almost regretted knowing too much, watching the red indicator bar sliding toward yellow. Slowing down meant they couldn’t activate the OtherSpace Drive. “Velocity dropping,” the Castori said. “We’re losing thrust.” Before long, the Nall warship would overtake the Havelock, adding a cherry to the melted ice cream sundae that so far had proven to be one of the worst days in Jude Piedmont’s life.

“Let me guess,” Salaban growled into the commlink to engineering, while glaring in Ochochin’s direction. “The coupler is gone and took one of the gimbals with it?”

“Correct,” Ercrax answered over the link. “I anticipated that you might need to compensate for the lost thrust with the radical and highly unorthodox method of double pumping one of the thrusters.”

“Speed leveled off, now increasing again,” the Castori confirmed, reviewing the data on the holographic diagnostics display. He glanced back toward Salaban. “Ready to activate the OtherSpace Drive on your mark, Captain.”

“Now,” Salaban said, just as the Eye of the Goddess fired a full salvo from a dozen cannons at the fleeing freighter.

As Ochochin thumbed the drive activation sensor pad, tendrils of blue energy coruscated across the hull of the Havelock, fore to aft, and the freighter with the missing thruster gimbal flashed out of existence…

…to be almost immediately replaced by a similar freighter with a complete set of thruster gimbals, whose human captain, Jude Piedmont, barely had enough time to realize his ship had been drastically relocated from the Tomin Nebula.

Barely enough time to notice he wasn’t playing chicken with the Galore anymore. His kaleidoscope of problems – the Medlidikke pirate vessel, Abernathy, Grim’s CIS and Vanguard contingent, the Nall fleet – everything was suddenly narrowed to one major issue: The Havelock was flying dead on toward the tri-talon hull of a Parallax warship.

He didn’t have a clue about the second issue, which would prove paramount.

In the brief moments while these things registered with Piedmont, the singularity bomb detonated in his cargo hold. The explosion engulfed the Splinter, which amplified the blast.

The Havelock crumpled into itself, wadding like paper as it sparked geysers of plasma and vented clouds of freezing air and water. Squares of silver foil lofted through the vacuum, dancing briefly in the starlight along the Line of Pain, only to be drawn back into the singularity. Apparently, this turn of events also took the duo aboard the Nall ship by surprise. Caught in the turbulence of the event horizon ringing the singularity, the gray-green talons of the Eye of the Goddess curled upward so that the warship’s guns fired their final emerald blasts at their own command dome.

When the Consortium Intelligence Service finally arrived, hoping to acquire a priceless trophy acquired from the hated Nall, they would find nothing more than the wreckage of three more additions to the Line of Pain.

PART III.
DISPLACEMENT

One moment, the Havelock carrying the powerful Kamir artifact was zooming toward the Galore.

Majordomo Abernathy fumed at Piedmont’s temerity. He knew that opening fire on a ship carrying such an artifact would have potentially catastrophic consequences. He would ever forget the Crystalline Prince incident of 2631. How could he forget? He had witnessed first-hand. He had been part of the crew of marauding pirates aboard the Zanzibar when they attacked the Prince, a Consortium research vessel. The Sortie ship had just departed Val Shohob with an ancient Kamir relic.

When the Crystalline Prince had exploded, reality itself seemed to rupture. Each member of the Zanzibar crew saw their compatriots as that which they hated or feared the most, which left them either raving for blood or cowering in shadowy corners of the ship. Abernathy had been among those raving for blood. He had stalked from passage to passage, room to room, beating people to death. In the end, he was the sole survivor.

He wouldn’t open fire on the Havelock. Not with that Splinter stashed in the cargo hold.

The next moment, the freighter seemed to flash out of existence for just a few moments before it appeared to rematerialize. Somehow, the Havelock had made a split-second maneuver to reverse course away from the Galore. No way that should have worked, Abernathy thought.

But maybe the maneuver had a price. The majordomo noticed that the Havelock was now missing a thruster nozzle. However, no sign of debris from the ship on sensors.

Damned odd, he thought.

Maybe Piedmont came to his senses.

Like Abernathy, Senior Agent Grim was puzzled by the sudden course reversal. Unlike Abernathy, he didn’t immediately notice the damage to the thruster assembly.

The Havelock was decelerating. Grim ordered his navigator to adjust the Tendril‘s course to intercept. As his CIS vessel closed on the Havelock, the senior agent activated the general frequency commlink to broadcast:

“Fellow travelers, while I appreciate all of the interest you have shown in Captain Piedmont and his cargo, I must insist that you respect the arrangement previously struck between us. If any of you have further business with him after our transaction is concluded, I will leave that for you to settle after I depart.”

The gaunt scarecrow on the hoverchair whirred in from the main corridor into the bridge. “Oh, honey, I’m sure that’ll really do the trick. Be a doll. Which way to the escape pod?” Vampire asked.

Vard Bokren drove that sparking trident on the end of his left arm through the neck of his favorite communications officer.

That’s how angry Grim made the Medlidikke pirate commander aboard the Skytaker.

Blood gushed from the wound as Bokren tugged the spike free and then kicked the dead Hekayti out of his seat at comms. He scowled as he turned to each remaining station on the bridge, waiting for someone else to give him bad news.

Bokren had pursued Piedmont for weeks, from star system to star system in the Ancient Expanse, to Comorro Station, and now beyond the rift to the Orion Arm. He would not simply yield to this pretentious human, who seemed little better than a Kjernkor bureaucrat.

He turned to glower over the bleeding corpse on the deck toward the weapons officer and shouted, “Lock weapons and fire!”

Onscreen, the Tendril erupted under fire from the Skytaker as Voluanfel dragged the Mekke technician into the command center of the Nalia’s Claw. Bluish-black ichor gushed dangerously from Ercrax’s severed limb, streaking the deckplates.

The Nall warship’s interior had begun to warm again. Antazvril stirred in her command harness, lifting her snout and turning her attention toward the Vollistan Light Singer and his damaged cargo. “What did he do?” the commander asked.

Voluanfel’s aura pulsed dark blue as he deposited the crumpled insectoid on the deck in front of Antazvril. “Sabotage,” he answered. “He caused the atmospherics to drop to hibernation levels. Much colder, I fear you and the rest of the Nall would be rendered comatose. He tried to prevent the teleportation of the singularity bomb.” He looked toward the screen, where theHavelock remained quite obviously intact within the spreading debris field of the ship formally identified as the Tendril. “Apparently, he had a safeguard in place to render the bomb inert. Or he teleported the device somewhere else.”

The Mekke shook his dark-shelled head, peering up at Antazvril through glittering black compound eyes. “No, I sabotaged nothing! The atmospherics were not my doing. When this lunatic teleported my hand off, I was trying to extract the device for a final diagnostic. If anyone is to blame for this failure, it is your overzealous political officer. I cannot be held responsible for any malfunctions or dislocations as a result of his meddling.”

Groggily, the Nall commander hissed and swung her tail back and forth, agitated, as she descended from the harness. Her claws clicked on the deckplates as she stalked closer to Ercrax and Voluanfel. “Take him to the medical bay for treatment, but keep him under guard,” she ordered the Light Singer. Her gaze settled on the Mekke as she said, “We will return to Nalhom and conduct a full investigation of this incident. Pray to Nalia that the evidence supports your assertion, Ercrax.”

The Tendril had exploded, but the remaining two Vanguard escorts opened fire on the Skytaker.

Aboard the Galore, Abernathy ordered his small fleet to launch salvos at the Skytaker‘s companion ships from beyond the rift.

He didn’t care much for Sorties, generally, but at least they were from around here. Even the Nall could claim to be interested locals, even if they were cranky walking suitcases. But the Nalia’s Claw and her support ships seemed to have lost their taste for this confrontation. They were arcing away, gaining velocity to activate their OtherSpace Drives.

The Sorties had taken a loss with the destruction of the CIS ship, which should be message enough not to come around Lord Fagin’s territory again without prior authorization. Now it was time to teach a similar lesson to these Hekayti pirates from the Ancient Expanse.

Even through his fury, Vard Bokren recognized that he was outnumbered. It might have been different if the Nall had joined the fight on his side, but they had turned from the conflict. Cowardly lizards. They lacked spine for the fight, it seemed, putting paid to the legends he had heard Outversers tell of their reptiloid foes from the Parallax. However, their departure made his own continued engagement in the fight a matter of simple mathematics. If the Skytaker remained locked in this battle over the Splinter, the ship would be lost with all hands. He would gain nothing and lose everything.

If Bokren ended the fight now, he could regroup in the Ancient Expanse and plan how to reclaim the Splinter from the Orion Arm. Or, failing that, at the very least he could scheme appropriate revenge to make these interlopers pay for their transgressions against the Medlidikke.

“Break off,” he growled at the navigator. “Accelerate toward the rift and prepare to transit back. Order Pincer and Mootbreaker to cover our escape. Stars will burn for them in our memories.”

Piedmont awoke in the dark, face down on the deck, arms spread over his head and legs akimbo. He grunted, rolling himself over onto his back and bringing his hands down to rest on his chest, like a corpse in sepulchral repose.

It must have worked, he thought. If Captain Salaban’s maneuver hadn’t succeeded, the Havelock wouldn’t still be intact. But the lack of lights – even emergency backup lanterns – didn’t bode well. Systems offline? Adrift? What if life support had failed? They might only have a matter of hours to live with the current oxygen supply.

Somewhere deeper in the ship, a hatch clanked open with a venting hiss. Airlock? He sat upright, turning to look toward the vaguest hint of light spilling into the main corridor through the lock porthole. Piedmont got to his feet, bracing himself against the navigation console.

“Anyone alive in here?” shouted a familiar voice from the airlock. “If so, if you are capable of moving on your own, please proceed to the airlock. We are waiting to provide medical treatment, if needed.” Abernathy. How had he survived that Nall attack, let alone manage to track down the Havelock after the hot jump?

Piedmont caught a glimpse of other shadowy figures moving past him, pushing their way toward the corridor. On their way out, apparently. Something not right, he thought. Too dark to tell exactly what. He opened his mouth, about to speak, but he decided that he would serve himself better through silence. Hands pressed against the bulkheads, he worked his way to the Havelock‘s crew quarters and hunted through the darkness for the small weapons locker.

The majordomo walked down the ramp from the Havelock, which now rested in the cavernous docking bay of the Galore.

“We’ll give them a minute,” Abernathy said to the four Elite Guard soldiers in blue and silver livery of Lord Fagin’s protective detail. If no one emerged, the elites could swarm for a search and recovery. That chunk of Kamir-imbued rock inside, which had proved so fatally elusive to Senior Agent Grim, might prove incredibly lucrative for Fagin’s Riches.

Within ten seconds, the interior airlock hatch thunked as it was unlocked and then it hissed open. From it emerged the familiar figure of Jude Piedmont. The smuggler, wearing a black vest over a brown long-sleeve tunic and gray trousers tucked into brown boots, stomped down the ramp to the deck, glaring at Abernathy, and said, “What the hell? Do you really want a shooting war with the Consortium? Do you know how much trouble I went through to acquire the Splinter?”

Raising a hand to motion Jude to silence, the majordomo replied, “You will be duly compensated for the inconvenience.” He offered his most reassuring smile, which was mostly chilling, and then looked back toward the Havelock. Someone else was emerging: a dark-haired woman in a royal blue tunic and black trousers tucked into black boots. She looked like she could have passed for the captain’s sister.

“Where’s Marlan?” she demanded as she walked down the ramp. “Diss? What have you done with my crew?”

Abernathy’s eyes twitched as he looked from the woman to Captain Piedmont, who appeared equally puzzled.

“Who are you and how did you get on my ship?” Piedmont asked the woman.

She put her hands on her hips, glowering at the captain. She stopped about two feet from him as she insisted: “The Havelock is *my* ship.” Exact same height, Abernathy noted. Same set of the jaw. Same eyes.

“Captain Baker?” asked the third person off the Havelock. Male, this time, clad in a sea green medical gown. Another doppelganger of Jude Piedmont, except that his hair was shaved closer to his head and he held a hand against his abdomen, as if he had recently suffered an injury.

Both Captain Piedmont and his rival, whom Abernathy had decided to refer to mentally as “She-dmont” for the sake of sorting matters out, fixed befuddled gazes on the newcomer as he stepped onto the Galore‘s deck. The Elite Guard soldiers, plasma rifles held ready, found themselves transfixed by the strange trio of look-alikes.

The fourth survivor to emerge from the airlock was, predictably at this point, another Piedmont. He had a little bit of the “crazy eyes” going on, with sweat beading on his face. This one wore an orange jumpsuit and clutched a pulse pistol in his right hand, aimed directly at Abernathy. He didn’t yell at anyone about stowing away on his ship. He didn’t ask where his crew was. He just stared furiously at Abernathy and, without so much as a word or even a guttural shout of anger, squeezed the trigger. The majordomo didn’t have time to register his own impending doom before the energy bolt burned through his temple, into his skull, and baked his brain.

The Elite Guards, finally stirred to action by the sight of their boss thumping onto the deck, aimed their rifles at the shooter. The other three Piedmonts looked from him to the lifeless corpse on the floor and said, in unison: “Holy shit. What did I just do?”

One of Fagin’s guards, a square-jawed man with Nordic features – blue eyes, close-cropped blonde hair and beard – lowered his rifle and knelt beside the fallen Abernathy. He checked wrist and neck for a pulse. He looked up at another guard, dark-skinned and bald, with a scar below his left eye. Shook his head.

The ebon-skinned guard turned to gaze up the ramp at the Piedmont doppelganger in the orange jumpsuit. “The rules of Fagin’s Riches and Tomin Kora are clear, consistent, and inviolate.” He held the rifle in a ready position, but did not aim it at the shooter. He took a step toward the ramp.

“Wait! What?” The shooter looked perplexed. “That maniac works as muscle for the Odarite Merchants Guild!” He raised his hands, then said, “I don’t want any trouble with you people. I’m putting the gun down.” Piedmont knelt slowly, lowering his right hand to place the pulse pistol on the top of the ramp. He kicked the weapon down the length of the ramp. It spun to a stop at the guard’s feet. He stood upright again, raising his arms above his head.

In turn, the guard slung his rifle in a holster over his shoulder, strapped to his back, and then bent over to pick up the discarded pistol. He took another step forward, then knelt before the ramp and offered up the gun toward Piedmont. “It is unseemly for Lord Fagin the Pirate King to surrender his weapon to a subordinate. We are yours to command.” The other three Elite Guards moved to kneel beside their companion.

“Oh,” the female Jude Piedmont started. Outpatient Piedmont and First Captain Piedmont finished with her: “For Christ’s sake. Seriously?”

Shooter Piedmont furrowed his brow, staring perplexedly at the men kneeling between him and the head-shot body of the guy he’d seen flung across the main room of the Yellow Adobe Tavern. Slowly, he lowered his hands. He started walking down the ramp toward the guards. “What are you talking about? How can I be Lord Fagin? How was *he* Lord Fagin?” He pointed at Abernathy’s corpse.

“Lord Fagin has never always been one person,” the guard with his pistol answered. “It is an identity assumed by several people over the years. Sometimes, as in Abernathy’s case, the Pirate King assumes the role of his own majordomo so that he may take a more hands-on role in the operations of the empire.” He lowered his eyes to the deck, then said, “It is known and accepted that if the current Pirate King dies at the hand of another, that other becomes the new Pirate King.” Now, he looked back up at Shooter Piedmont. “You killed Abernathy. The mantle of authority throughout Fagin’s Riches now falls to you.”

“Wow,” Shooter Piedmont replied. “That is a lot to take in.” He looked toward the two men and the woman who looked far too much like him for comfort. “A hell of a lot, under the circumstances.” He turned his attention back to the guard holding his pistol. “You guys can stand up. And take me somewhere I can chat with my…friends…over there.” He nodded toward the doppelganger trio.

The Elite Guards rose to their feet and said, as one, “Yours to command, my lord.”

The luxurious King’s Suite aboard the Galore was built into the upper rear hull of the modified cruise liner, with floor to ceiling windows that curved to match the sleek contours of the bulkhead.

Jude Piedmont, the one who had awakened this morning as a fuel monkey in the Quaquan spaceport, now appeared to be the ruler of the Orion Arm’s most prominent criminal empire.

And now he shared a cabin with what seemed to be three versions of him from different alternate realities. The Piedmont who claimed to be from this reality sat in an ornate gold-trimmed red cushioned chair with a leg slung over an armrest. Wounded Piedmont stretched out on the thick blue and silver comforter. Female Piedmont paced near the door, hands clasped behind her back.

“The Havelock in the bay, the one we all showed up in, that belonged to Captain Garunth Salaban,” the newly anointed Pirate King explained.

Piedmont in the chair barked a laugh. “Salaban? Captain? Maybe if he stopped stuffing Fizzy Cakes in his face for a few seconds, he could learn to command.”

Female Piedmont stopped, turned, and glared at him. “Garunth Salaban was a hero in my reality. He gave his life so that I could survive the Demarian arena.”

Wounded Piedmont raised a hand from his bed. “Saved my life too. He was a security guard. Caught the assassin who shot me.”

Pirate King Piedmont looked out the window at the dramatic violet-blue expanse of the Tomin Nebula. Heart of his new domain. “Different versions of us in these realities. Guess it’s no surprise to learn other people we know turn up there too.” He sighed. “Who knew an incompetent thug working for a bug-eyed mobster in one version might be Lord Fagin in another?” For that matter, he thought, who would expect a debt-ridden underachiever to make a similar ascendancy? “Anyway, we were fleeing from a Nall warship that my girlfriend had commandeered. The captain tried a hot jump to escape.”

“A hot jump?” Piedmont in the chair rubbed his forehead with his right hand. “That’s all kinds of crazy. I knew a captain who tried it once. The ship materialized ten light years away with the crew all half in and out of bulkheads and deckplates. They didn’t die right away. Goddamned mess.”

Female Piedmont walked toward a red-cushioned couch and sat in the middle of it, resting her hands between her knees as she hunched over, looking toward the Pirate King. “So this hot jump worked, inasmuch as it got you and your version of the Havelockaway from danger.” Then she leaned back, gesturing with her arm to indicate the other two Piedmonts. “But it yanked all of us from our realities and stuck us together? Why? And what happened to our crews?”

“I don’t know,” the Pirate King said. He turned to look at them. “I suppose one of the worst-case scenarios is that they all materialized on Captain Piedmont’s version of the Havelock in *my* reality, just in time for the Eye of the Goddess to blow them up.”

“A quick death?” Female Piedmont chuckled. “You’ve got an optimistic view of worst-case scenarios. What if they’re all stuck in the arena, fighting for their lives against the goddamned Nall?”

Piedmont in the chair nodded. “Or maybe they just popped out into vacuum somewhere, freezing and suffocating.”

“Y’all are just a super cheerful bunch, aren’t you?” Wounded Piedmont asked, smirking.

Female Piedmont shrugged. “I just hate not knowing. And I hate not being able to do a damned thing about it. Nothing against any of you – me – really, but I never wanted more of myself for company.”

“Yeah,” Piedmont in the chair agreed. “Same here.” He frowned, crossing his arms. “But damned if I know what our options are, beyond trying another hot jump – and who knows what would happen this time? Although…” His voice trailed off.

“What?” Female Piedmont pressed.

“Well, there are these rifts,” he replied, pointing toward the window behind Pirate King Piedmont. “Undetectable without a rift modulator. I had one aboard my Havelock. I’m guessing Captain Salaban didn’t have one.”

“I never heard him mention it, if he did,” the Pirate King said. “But, keep in mind, I only knew him for a few hours. If you want to search the ship, feel free.”

“What do these rifts do?” Female Piedmont asked.

“They’re gateways,” said Piedmont in the chair, pulling his leg off the armrest to sit with both feet on the floor. He rested his hands between his knees, hunching in a masculine mirror image of the female Piedmont. “Two way, usually. If you have a modulator on your ship, you can tap into a rift and cross from one universe to another. The one just outside this ship leads to a universe called the Ancient Expanse. It’s the only one we’ve found so far in the Orion Arm. But what if we could find some that link to parallel versions of our own universe?”

Wounded Piedmont shook his head. “That sounds like way too much effort for too little gain. I was heading off to do my own thing eventually, anyway. This just gives me a kick to get started.” He frowned, resting a hand on his abdomen. “Although, I probably ought to follow up with a doctor about this injury.”

The Pirate King nodded, then looked toward the Piedmonts on living room furniture. He understood their concern about the crews they lost – he certainly hoped that Captain Salaban and his crew were alive and well wherever they materialized, and it pained him to think that he might never see his parents again. Some of Mom’s pie really would be great right about now. But he had traded that, plus a mountain of debt, a vendetta by the Odarite Merchants Guild, the Consortium Intelligence Service, and maybe even the Clawed Fist Fleet, to become ruler of a massive criminal empire. He had a huge starship, an underground palace on Tomin Kora, and his own personal defense force. Why screw with that? “I’m staying put. I will never have an opportunity like this again. Frankly, I could use a majordomo I can trust to fill in all the blanks I have about this reality and to be my eyes and ears. We *could* pull the secret identity trick pretty successfully with all of us sharing the gig. Reduces the chance of one of us getting capped by a hapless out-of-towner, right?”

Female Piedmont smirked, then stood and said, “No, thanks. I’m with he-me over there.” She pointed at Piedmont in the chair. “My crew…they’re closer than my real family. If they’re alive, I want to find them. I won’t rest until I know what happened.”

“Count me out too,” said the man in the chair, shaking his head and chuckling. “I never wanted to be in charge of more than my ship. Now I’d like to see if I can track it down again – preferably with Ocho and Salaban intact.” He shrugged. “They’re annoying, but they’re my kind of annoying.”

Wounded Piedmont sighed, saying, “I just went to a lot of trouble to prove I wasn’t a criminal in court. Why would I throw that all away to be a lackey for the Pirate King? Seems like it just pisses all over the memory of how Garunth Salaban saved my life. He gave me another chance. I’m not going to waste it playing some kind of man-sized shell game.” He arched an eyebrow, looking toward Piedmont in the chair. “This Ancient Expanse place sounds intriguing, though.”

“They’ve got space whales,” said the man in the chair, brightening. Then he looked at the Pirate King and said, “Sorry, man. Feels like we’re ditching you.”

Piedmont by the window shook his head, his own smirk spreading across his face. “Christ, nothing to apologize for. I get it. You’re connected. That’s important. Do what you’ve got to do.” He looked to the wounded Piedmont on the bed and said, “I know what it’s like to want a fresh start. I’ve just had a hard time starting fresh without screwing it up just as badly as what I left behind. So this’ll be a real test for me, I think.”

Female Piedmont laughed, crossing her arms as she leaned back on the couch. “I suspect you’re going to be hard enough on yourself without more than one of you riding your ass about the job you’re doing.”

“Yeah,” the Pirate King said. He turned to look back out at the nebula. “Okay,” he said. “Well, whatever you need, just ask. Rift modulators? Ships?” He clasped his hands behind his back. “Apparently, I have a few resources at my disposal.”

The doctor, an olive-skinned Timonae woman with her long silver hair braided but bound back, knocked twice on the door of the exam room.

“Come in,” Jude Piedmont said, shrugging his way into a black long-sleeve tunic. The wound on his abdomen now manifested as little more than a pale scar just two days after his arrival on Nephthys Station. That scar would fade entirely as the healing nanites continued their work over the next three days.

Doctor Ayana Zeer waved a hand over the sensor panel, whooshing the door open, and then stepped inside. The door closed behind her as she tugged a PDA from her white lab coat’s pocket. “Mr. Piedmont, I have some excellent news for you.” She tapped a sequence on the virtual keypad of the PDA, then reviewed the data output. “Internally, all the damage from the wound has healed. Your vitals look good. I’ve cleared you for release. You will need to sign discharge documents at the front desk, but don’t worry about payment. Lord Fagin has settled your account.”

 “Kind of him,” Piedmont said, smiling.

 “Indeed,” the doctor agreed, arching an eyebrow. “It is not something we see very often.”

After completing his discharge paperwork, Jude walked out of the medical center and into the main commons of the station. Here he was met by the bald, scarred Elite Guard he knew from his arrival on the Galore. Since then, Jude had learned that the guard’s name was Harvard Jessup – all his friends called him Harv. He came originally from the ice-shrouded ruins of old Detroit on Earth, left for dead at the age of eleven after his parents and three siblings died in a polar bear attack. Salvagers in the city found Harv shivering in an old Starbucks coffee house not far from Lake Michigan. They took him in, raised him as part of the crew. Within a decade, he was working in the Smugglers Guild, providing protection services to guild captains. Eventually, he proved competent enough at his job to earn promotion to the Elite Guard.

“Harv,” Jude said.

The guard shook Piedmont’s hand and asked, “All clear?”

“Fit for travel, the doc said.”

They walked together past a broad window granting a vista of the rocky world of Tomin Kora against the violet-blue backdrop of the nebula. “I’ll see you to the docking hub,” Harv said. “I brought your ship.”

Piedmont grinned, impressed by the quick turnaround. He had worried that it might take weeks to pull something together. Once again, it paid off to have a friend in a particularly high place. “Thanks,” he said. “I can’t wait to start exploring. Ever been to the Ancient Expanse?”

Harv shook his head. “Rift modulator technology is scarcely a year old. I go where Lord Fagin goes. He rarely ventures away from Tomin Kora, let alone traveling beyond rifts to other universes.

“How’s the new guy settling in?” Jude asked.

The guard stopped next to the elevator call panel in the corridor hub. He tapped the down arrow button. “New guy?” Harv offered a cryptic smile.

“Ah, right,” Jude said, chuckling. He watched the lift doors hiss open and then stepped inside, followed by Harv. As the doors closed, he said, “I thought it was odd that you didn’t just kill him for shooting…you know. Are you guys really that philosophical about who’s in charge?”

Harv pressed the button marked DB – for Docking Bay – and the elevator started its descent. He clasped his hands behind his back. “The Elite Guard is to blame for that, ultimately. Had we not allowed ourselves to be distracted, it never would’ve happened. The Guardians must redouble our efforts to remain alert and in tune with the Pirate King’s environment and surroundings. We must not fail him again.”

They emerged from the elevator to find a Grimlahdi – cousin of the Zangali, but about two feet shorter – and a floating crystalline jellyfish known as a Centauran waiting in the corridor outside to take their place in the compartment.

Through the broad maw of the docking bay entrance, Jude could see at least a dozen starships berthed for refueling and repair. He followed Harv past two garishly painted rockhoppers, a crab-like passenger transport, a green metal orb on landing stilts that must have been a G’ahnli freighter – water sloshed around behind the portholes, a shovel-shaped freighter with orange and yellow Demarian striping, and two heavy freighters that looked like hands clenched into fists – with windows where the topmost “knuckles” stretched. Ultimately, they stopped at the base of a ramp leading up to the airlock of the Jericho. It was a Sherpa class transport, all points and angles, with shark fin wings and a wedge-shaped bridge compartment. Not much for hauling cargo, but the Sherpa enjoyed a reputation for high speed and maneuverability at sublight.

“Fully fueled,” Harv said, waving an arm toward the ramp. “Rift modulator installed.” He extended a hand once more to Piedmont. “His Majesty wishes you safe travels and asks that you keep in touch.”

Jude lifted his eyebrows before shaking the offered hand. “Do me a favor, Harv. Tell him I appreciate the sendoff, the ship, the comped stay in the hospital. But…maybe I’m the only one, but it creeps me right the hell out that I’ve got more than one version of me roaming around the cosmos. So, tell him not to wait for any messages from abroad. I’m going to the Expanse and I’m not looking back.”

A news holovid blared as Jude Piedmont rode the autoramp down into the central platform of the Crawford Street Metro Station in San Angeles.

The image came from an array built into a thick floor-to-ceiling transparent column in the middle of the platform. The holovid emitted from the array showed the Consortium Broadcast Network logo, a well-tanned human female anchorwoman named Phaedra Tux, and the mug shot of a human with black hair and green eyes, identified as Jeffrey Corris.

“The situation remains tense between Consortium government authorities and the recently discovered Idaran Hegemony,” Tux explained as Piedmont walked toward the platform segment marked by a floating red orb. The Red Line would take him to his destination. A clock display indicated that the hovertrain would arrive within two minutes. While he waited, he continued to watch the news report. “It has been less than a week since Jeffrey Corris, a Consortium Council representative, was killed by Idaran authorities during a diplomatic visit to their homeworld in the alien universe known as the Bright Cluster.” The image shifted, showing a star chart with interuniversal transfer points near Tomin Kora (leading to the Ancient Expanse) and somewhere within the Ancient Expanse (leading to the Bright Cluster). Next, the image returned to Tux, now with the mug of a gray-haired human identified as Walter Bain in the upper right. “Consortium Council President Walter Bain has vowed to bring the councillor’s killers to justice and has ordered the Vanguard to heightened alert status. However, he has stopped short of dispatching a fleet into Idaran territory.”

Jude didn’t think it was worth the saber rattling. No one in their right mind would start a war with a distant alien universe over a credit-a-dozen bureaucrat from a backwater world like Earth. Bain could jaw all he wanted about “cowardly, dishonorable slaughter,” but in the end he would never get the votes to commit resources from the rest of the Consortium worlds to a military misadventure beyond not just one, but two rifts. They had too many problems to manage much closer to home to worry about the Idarans, Piedmont thought.

The Red Line train took about two minutes to deliver him to Wynden Street. By the time he stepped off the train at that station, the CBN feed had moved on from interuniversal diplomacy issues to a feature about something called “The Porter Effect,” which seemed to be about David Ransom Porter – a mysterious human who had brought rift modulator technology from the Ancient Expanse to the Orion Arm before disappearing – and how his gift had opened new opportunities for stagnating economies while exposing the Orion Arm to a host of potential enemies from beyond the rifts.

The autoramp carried Piedmont up to the bustling midday thoroughfare of Wynden Street, the heart of the commercial district in San Angeles. The street was named after Sandra Wynden, a former San Angeles Chamber of Commerce leader in the late 26th Century. She served several terms on the Consortium Council before making a run for president, but didn’t win. For her final assignment, she was appointed as ambassador to Ungstir in 2610.

Rising to the north, dominating the district skyline, Casady Stadium could seat about sixty thousand fans eager to watch professional sports teams, such as the San Angeles Peaks (hockey), Scalebacks (football), Wildfire (baseball), and Megas (zero-g basketball). Currently, it was Scaleback season. The domed stadium was named after Patrick Casady, first superintendent of the megalopolis of San Angeles. A holographic marquee scrolling around the circumference of the sky blue dome announced that tickets were still available for Sunday’s game against the New York Prophets. Piedmont pondered, checking his wrist chronometer. He had a few minutes to spare before the meeting. Plenty of time to secure tickets for the weekend game. He didn’t expect to leave Earth again until next week at the earliest.

From the stadium, he caught a hovercab to Couture Street. That ride only lasted a few minutes in traffic, although it cost close to twenty credits. The cab dropped him off outside one of the nondescript beige and brown domes in the Peery Industrial Park. He was still early, despite the brief diversion at the stadium. He wondered if Dr. Tolstoy had already arrived. They had arranged the meeting yesterday via text communiqué after Piedmont had issued a public query on an experimental science data node, asking to collaborate with someone who might be knowledgeable in “mirror reality” theory and connections of parallel lives. James Tolstoy had presented himself as a middle-aged academic with Vanguard connections who might be able to bring together the resources necessary to take the theory closer to tangibility.

“I cannot guarantee quick results on this front,” Tolstoy had written. “However, with adequate funding, I would hope to produce something for you within a year.”

Given his connection to the new Lord Fagin, Piedmont decided that money wouldn’t be an issue. He thought Tolstoy seemed credible enough to warrant a meeting at the very least.

Piedmont tried the front door of Building C111. It was unlocked, so he walked inside. No one in the reception area, although light instrumental music lilted from recessed speakers in the walls. He tested the next door, which was made of heavy brown plastic. It swung open to reveal a spacious chamber with a geodesic domed ceiling, a couple of work tables and chairs, and a pedestal in the middle that was looping a holovid. He suspected that the vid might be something related to Tolstoy’s work. He stepped closer to get a better view. Soon enough, though, the looping footage became all too clear. It was the Consortium Intelligence Service ship,Tendril, exploding near the damaged Havelock. Over and over and over again.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” he muttered. Piedmont turned slowly, but was utterly unsurprised to see two men in black suits and black sunglasses flanking the door, with black rifles aimed at him. He calmly raised his hands above his head as Senior Agent Grim strode into the room, followed by a gaunt one-legged man on a floating hoverchair. “I am such a moron.”

Grim smiled. “You’re a moron who owes me an artifact. Come with us. We have work to do.”

Jude Piedmont actually felt a little guilty with how much she liked the new ship.

It wasn’t as big as the Havelock. Indeed, it was about a third the size of her freighter. She didn’t need something that required a full crew complement. When the time came, she hoped, she wouldn’t actually need the ship to get from this iteration of the Orion Arm to her own sliver of it.

Still, she liked it – small, sleek, Willow-class transport shaped like a ferret’s head with three bulbous thruster nozzles jutting from the aft hull. Silver hull plates, striped red and blue from fore to aft. The ship somehow seemed too petite for its name: the Garunth Salaban. She would always remember the Zangali as a hulking, lumbering warrior, and yet she had given his name to one of the daintiest starships that she had ever set eyes upon.

It would do for now. Eventually, she reasoned, she would buy the biggest thug-stopping plasma cannon on the market and name that after her new hero. Until then, the ship would suffice for keeping him always in her memory. She would think of him and, in turn, she would think of the crew that she wanted so much to reconnect with beyond the veil of this reality.

Her best hope for a near-horizon return, research suggested, was on the Consortium colony world of Agincourt. She began her descent toward the primary settlement, Docent, which was also the home of the planet’s prominent university.

After securing her transport in a berth at the main spaceport, Jude caught a hovercab across town to the University of Agincourt campus.

The driver, a Shohobian Mystic, introduced himself as Velethon. As part of the cab ride experience, which cost about sixteen credits from spaceport to university, he offered to share a snippet of prophecy for which the Mystics of Val Shohob were so renowned.

“One star blazes brighter than three,” the driver said.

“That’s it?” she asked. “That’s the best you’ve got?” Jude comforted herself with the knowledge that at least the patently unhelpful prophecy cost her nothing extra.

The pale blue sun was starting to sink behind the chalky white and green peaks to the west, casting the young colonial skyline in shadow as lights began to twinkle on in buildings that rose no higher than ten stories.

She found the professor, as arranged, in his laboratory in the Freyssinet Building. He was an older man, face framed by white hair and beard. The lab was dimly lit, with banks of computer terminals and holovid consoles and thick cables snaking along the floor, twining around columns like shiny constrictors, and weaving through conduits across the ceiling. Jude saw coffin-like devices, walled with glass and framed in green metal, which she could not quite begin to comprehend.

Professor Fulton Hight was hunched over one of these, scanning with a handheld sensor monitor. He looked up as she entered and gave a bright smile. “Ah, Captain Piedmont, I presume?”

“Thank you for taking this meeting on such short notice, Professor,” she said as she bumped and maneuvered her way through the lab to reach him and shake his free hand. “I hope it’s not too much trouble.”

Hight shook his head. “Not at all. My work tends toward the esoteric and ephemeral, so it tends to linger outside the normal range of interest for all but the most eccentric.” He chuckled. “Frankly, I am astonished sometimes that the program remains funded. After all, we do nothing to promote the university’s popular athletic activities. But the government is among those taking an interest in what I do, so, we haven’t gone broke yet.” Rapping a knuckle against the side of his head, he added, “Knock on wood.” He gave a broad smile as he shifted topics. “But I’m not the interesting one here, really. You, my dear, are a fascinating creature.”

“Me?” Jude couldn’t imagine. Here was a guy who might just be able to open a door to the reality that she had come from. What could he possibly find interesting about her?

“Our work here before now has been largely theoretical,” he said. “Even before we discovered the existence of alien universes separate from our own, we were starting to delve into the promise of parallel realities. If your story is true, then you are one of the first examples of tangible proof that such realities exist.”

“If it’s true?” She frowned. “You don’t believe me?”

“I certainly want to believe you,” Hight replied. “However, I am a scientist. I cannot accept that you are alien to this reality without further proof. Cloning technology is available to all advanced cultures in the Orion Arm.”

Jude crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes at the professor. “I’m not somebody’s clone. I have parents. I left behind a crew with my ship. I had a life. Just a few days ago, it nearly ended in the Demarian arena.”

“Memory fabrication is nothing new,” he countered. As she opened her mouth to protest further, Hight raised a hand and said, “If I did not believe it was possible, I would not have agreed to this meeting. We may be able to conduct tests to help determine the veracity of your account. Would you agree to such tests?”

She didn’t think she had much choice, not if she wanted to get Hight’s help in establishing a gateway to her home reality. But Jude could not deny that she resented his doubts about her credibility. “I don’t like it,” she said. “But if you think it’s necessary, if it’ll make you feel better about working with me…”

“Sorry I’m late,” came a man’s voice, familiar, from the direction of the doorway. Jude turned to look and her mouth dropped open again.

Hight sighed and shook his head at the newcomer. “My assistant, Paul Deeson. He’s a graduate student here at the university. More medically inclined than I am. He will administer the tests.”

Jude smirked. She looked from Deeson to Hight and said, “We met once.” Her eyes returned to the handsome grad student. “In the next reality over.”

“Really?” the professor said, placing his scanner on a table and interlacing his fingers before himself. “This should be terribly interesting, then. Shall we get started?”

AFTERWORD

This story, “Splinterverse,” was completed in 30 days in November 2012 during National Novel Writing Month.

It was inspired by the real-time space opera roleplaying adventure, OtherSpace at jointhesaga.com, which has been evolving online at jointhesaga.com since June 1998. A persistent multiverse, changing over the years for better and for worse, it has lasted longer than most well-known sci-fi television shows. My goal is to see it exceed the lifespan of the original Law & Order’s first-run episodes!

I want to thank my beautiful Catherine Constantinou for her patience and encouragement during NaNoWriMo 2012.

But I also must thank all the OtherSpace players from around the world – the ones who currently play, the ones who have gone before and moved on, and the ones like Brian Rucker who left us far too soon. You’re all the reason I keep it going.

Thanks for sharing the journey. Here’s to another 14 years!

Wes Platt
Durham, NC

Dec. 22, 2012


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